Wednesday, August 29, 2007

De Gustibus II

Thinking of the history of food again, there have been two interesting articles in The New Yorker recently. In the August 6th issue, Elizabeth Kolbert writes about the American bee industry (who knew?) in Stung: Where Have all the Bees Gone? It’s about the search to find both the disease that’s decimating the American bee population and its cause. The disease seems to be an apian form of AIDS. I understand that it’s not uncommon for diseases to jump species (I have a friend whose cat had feline AIDS for years), but there is something about that I find scary. In the course of the article she also mentions that in the past ten years, hybrid honeybees have taken over. It isn’t that there aren’t a lot of North American honeybees left- there aren’t any. I understand that over time species evolve and mutate, be they insects or plants. I doubt we’re eating the same rye that Charles Dickens did. But the eradication of that common a species that quickly is troubling to me.

This week’s issue has an article by John Seabrook about seeds- Sowing for Apocalypse: The Quest for a Global Seed Bank. Seabrook covers a lot of ground, and history. He identifies which plants from the Old World were brought by Columbus (including wheat, onions, citrus, melons, radishes, sugarcane, grapes and olives). The seeds of plants that Columbus took back to Spain were corn, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, squash, pineapples and sweet potatoes. Ah, old Cincinnatus’ dining options have exploded!

Though Seabrook is largely concerned with current efforts to preserve seeds, he manages to work in three pretty cool facts. One is that “most of the coffee that grows in Latin America today traces its ancestry to a single coffee plant from Java that was taken to the Amsterdam Botanical Garden in 1706.” Another is that much of what Columbus took back to Spain with him originated in Central and South America, not North. North America offered “blueberries, cranberries and a type of sunflower.” All good things, but not much of a basis for cuisine. The third fact is that Thomas Jefferson “smuggled rice seeds out of Italy by sewing them into his coat”. What would the U.S.D.A. make of that today?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Dramahound on the Road

Last weekend, I went to DC. On Saturday, the heat was unbelievable- at least 100 degrees and as muggy as a city built on a swamp can get. The friend I was staying with lives near the National Gallery, so we decided to get some culture and quality air conditioning at the same time.

There were two things at the Gallery that made a big impression on me. One was a photography exhibit called Foto, which was comprised of late Expressionist and Surrealist photos from Central Europe. Some familiar names (August Sander, Max Ernst, etc.) but I don’t remember seeing any of those images before.

The other was an amazing painting by Peter Paul Rubens. It was not a subject that I usually associate with Rubens- all those zaftig ladies and cherubs. The oddest Rubens I’ve ever seen is at Schonbrunn Palce outside Vienna. There’s a carriage museum (those Habsburgs knew how to live), that contains a carriage painted by Rubens, which I take to be the highest level of detailed van ever. The painting at the National Gallery was Daniel in the Lions’ Den, circa 1614. It is enormous (88 1/4 x 130 1/8 inches). There are nine lions, mostly males, depicted in various states of hunger. One is asleep. Another two are looking at each other, like they’re plotting the best way to get Daniel as a snack. They really look like lions- these are not metaphoric lions. And many of them are looking at you. Rubens did initial sketches of the lions at the Royal Menagerie in Brussels, and the lions in the painting are life-sized. Daniel is praying, but he still looks really, really nervous.

You should go. And it’s free.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Water Weather

So you’re thinking this is a subject not within the purview of the Dramahound? Well, yesterday I received an attractive pamphlet in the mail from the city office of Emergency Management. It was not about preparing for a terrorist attack, but for a hurricane.

When I lived in Rhode Island, there was one bad hurricane. I ignored the warnings and went to work at The Perishable Theatre that morning. But after awhile, no one else came in, so I called my boss. He told me to go home- the roads into Providence had been blocked off by the National Guard. So I started walking home and was indeed met by several members of the National Guard, who told me to give up any idea of buying candles, the stores were all out. I went home, waited out the storm, the electricity came back on by evening and that was that. Other Rhode Islanders didn’t have power for a week, but I was lucky.

If you spend much time in downtown Providence, you can’t avoid being reminded of hurricanes. There’s a big, ugly hurricane barrier in the bay, and a plaque on the Biltmore Hotel showing how far the water rose during the big hurricane in the 1930s- almost to the second floor. There’s been two hurricanes that swung by New York since I moved here, the big result of which were office buildings taping their windows. Nothing compared to a really bad nor’easter. For a hurricane to do real damage here, it would have to come all the way up the bay. Ever taken the Long Island Railroad from Montauk or East Hampton? It’s a long trip.

However, the NYC pamphlet tells me a bad storm could put the lowest lying parts of the city under 30 feet of water. It has three levels of evacuation zones for flood conditions. I was surprised to learn that not only do I live in an evacuation zone (if wind speeds hit 110 miles per hour), my old apartment in Yorkville is in one as well. It also suggests what you should have packed in a bag to leave, and what your emergency supplies should be (mine are woefully insufficient). The pamphlet alludes to Katrina, which was a nightmare. But New York’s topography isn’t the same as the Gulf States. Still, if a tornado can touch down in Brooklyn and do the damage it did- not a wide geographical area, but I’ve seen the ripped off roofs and pulled up trees- anything is possible.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Dating Game, or, What No One Told Me in Drama School

There are actually a lot of things I wasn’t told in drama school. But the one that’s taken more time and effort out of my professional life than any other is the amount of time that one spends “dating”- looking for the right director or composer. First, you must connect with them, on some level- not only aesthetically, but you need to be able to exchange ideas and speak freely about each other’s work, with a minimum of hurt feelings. You also need to be able to communicate with each other (harder than it sounds). Second, they need to love the piece as much as you do. Third, and this is particularly true of musicals, they need to think the play is about the same thing that you do.

The connection thing is really, really like a first date. It’s nerve-wracking, high-pressure, “Oh, my God, do they like me?” lunch or cup of coffee. And also like a first date, you watch them to see if they look bored. You notice if they only spew forth about their work, their training, who they’ve worked with. 70% of conversation dominance with a director is okay, but anything more than that and I’m done. Do they ask questions is also key (the more intelligent the better). And the ever-loaded question: whose work do you like? Because if they love the plays of Horton Foote and Richard Greenberg, they’re probably not going to like mine. I’m also leery of working with directors or composers with too thin a skin- if you spend all your time apologizing, it’s hard to get work done.

More times than not, the person sitting across the table from you will not love your play. It’s a very personal thing. Like dating. They may love another play of yours, if you’re lucky. Or they may be curious about the play but unclear about what you’re really saying with it, and once you tell them, they don’t want to devote months of their life to that.

This year, I’ve had some good first dates. I met a director who wants me to adapt two one acts from a book of short stories by one of my favorite novelists- very excited about that. I met another director who loves Brecht as much as I do, and we are intermittently meeting about a Faust adaptation of mine. Heard from her yesterday about how much she likes the music. I’ve also had first (and last) dates with a composer who had more lush nose hair than I’ve ever seen in a man under 70, and had no musical theatre music to give me, either lead sheets or a CD (a graduate of NYU, no less); and a director who’d moved to New York over a year ago, and hadn’t made an attempt to direct anything since.

And unfortunately, as with most love affairs, there are the relationships that come to an end. My favorite director in New York, the best dramaturg I’ve ever worked with, moved to Indiana this summer to start his own theatre. Brave, I’ll grant you, but I certainly miss him. There are two composers I’ve stopped working with because they’re too unreliable. Or the director that simply disappeared (last I heard she was in northern California).

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The City Watched by God

I’m taking a weekend excursion to Providence tomorrow, so I’m blogging earlier than usual. It’s not as easy to get to as it should be- for my entire adult life there’s been construction on I-95, and the train is always, always late.

I lived in Providence for part of the 1980s- first as a student at the Trinity Rep Conservatory, and then as the playwright-in-residence and tour booker for The Perishable Theatre. It was kind of a strange place in those days. The mayor, Buddy Cianci, had recently been convicted of having one of his thugs beat up his ex-wife’s boyfriend. On my way to school each day, I’d walk past Patriarca Vending Machines, which was the headquarters of the New England mob. Equally strange was the fact that Trinity Rep’s artistic director, Adrian Hall, was simultaneously artistic director of the Dallas Theatre Center. Which meant he was rarely in Providence, he was usually in Texas.

But that was long ago. Cianci did time in federal prison, the FBI cleaned up the mob, Trinity’s on its fourth artistic director since then. The reason I’m going to Providence is not to relive my misspent youth, but to see my friend James, who’s one of the smartest directors I know, and has done a lot of great work on plays of mine. He’s also one of those friends you can always rely on to tell you the truth, whether you want to hear it or not.

I spent a year of my life in law school in the 1990s, and while I was by no means friendless there, it was nothing like going to drama school. I still keep in touch with one classmate, who’s a corporate patent lawyer in New York. But the whole nature of the school (maybe the nature of the law?) was cold and competitive. There really was someone who hid a book on library reserve so the rest of us couldn’t do an assignment- like something out of “The Paper Chase.” There was certainly implicit and explicit competition at the Conservatory, but the equivalent of book-hiding never would have happened.

I guess I felt sorry for my George Gund School of Law classmates, that they wouldn’t have the opportunity to build the working relationships and the friendships that we took for granted in school. They certainly never had the opportunity to work on the “nightingale/lark” scene from “Romeo and Juliet,” and to hear James tell them: “It’s just like the ‘horse/mule’ scene from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’!”

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Au Revoir, Grande Dames

The Dramahound hesitates to turn this into an elegy festival, and “Tennis, Anyone?” was on the verge of elegy, I’m afraid. But when Mrs. Astor died yesterday, I couldn’t help thinking that death, of famous people or not famous people, comes in threes.

In a fairly short time span, three ladies responsible for not a little of New York City’s cultural life have died. So it would seem neglectful not to pay some small Dramahound tribute to them. I didn’t know any of them personally. I had a very pleasant dim sum lunch with one of their children last year; that’s as close as I got.

Beverly Sills was a force of nature in the opera world in New York City. When she retired from performing, she took on responsibility for getting City Opera on solid financial ground, which made the kind of work they produced in recent memory possible. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike the Met. I can’t afford it but once in a blue moon, and their programming is extremely conservative (though that seems to be changing under Peter Gelb). But I’ve seen I believe the only New York production of Tippett’s “Midsummer Marriage,” and that was at City Opera. We need both of them, City and the Met. Beverly Sills knew that, too. She went over to the Met when her work was done at City, and when her work was done at the Met, even as she was dying, she was navigating the treacherous waters and egos of Lincoln Center. She didn’t have to, she chose to, and opera in New York is all the better for it.

Kitty Carlisle Hart was a force of nature in the arts in the state of New York. She traveled all over, saw work and talked to people about their work, into her 90s. Mrs. Hart is difficult to write about because she ran the New York State Council on the Arts for so long and did so much for so many. She did not retreat into widowhood when her husband died (when Kennedy was President- a long, long time ago). She raised her two kids, and jumped back into life. Mrs. Hart’s work made a difference to nearly everyone who was in an audience or worked in the arts in New York for decades. I can’t imagine a better epitaph than that.

And finally, Mrs. Astor. It was her husband’s money, but, boy, she enjoyed giving it away. And she gave away a lot of it, particularly to the Public Library. I have spent many hours in the Research Library, reading and waiting for books to come up from the stacks in the basement. I always think of her when I’m there.

Ms. Sills, Mrs. Hart and Mrs. Astor. They all fought the good fight for years. And we are all the better for their efforts.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


My friend Joyce and I figured out a few months ago that we were derelict in our museum-going (you get out of the habit, you know?). One friend I used to go with moved away, one died, a third is too ill. I will go when I’ve got guests in from out-of-town, but there’s no regularity to that. So a few months ago, after I went to the Morgan to see the Fred Ebb Expressionist legacy, Joyce and I decided we would make the effort. We both think it’s good for writers, certainly for the two of us, to see visual art. Clears out your head and re-focuses it, somehow.

We both went to MoMA yesterday, but in the crush of people, we never found each other. I hadn’t been in the new building (sore that the admission went up to $20, and the other big museums followed suite, of course). I certainly went to the old museum a few times a year. I remember sitting with my sister in the sculpture garden, drinking iced tea and laughing at that silly Picasso of a goat. In my twenties, I’d make my visits to Guernica. I temped there, for a few weeks, in the photography department.

Even for a big show (the Richard Serra) I was completely unprepared for the number of people. The ticket line was nothing compared to the line for the checkroom, which was trumped by the line to pick up what was checkroom. There were many people with cameras. In that group, more than a few were interested in taking a photo of a painting they liked, and then rushing onto the next one (there didn’t seem to be a lot of actual “seeing” involved). So the dance to avoid photographers, baby strollers and other patrons got quite complicated.

There were also some characters. One woman in her 60s darted in and out of the Pollack room (completely ignoring a lovely Lee Krasner in the adjoining room), and finally shrieked at her husband, “House paint! He did it with house paint!” And I thanked God that went I went to the Pollack-Krasner house in Amagansett, she was not with me. There was another woman with a little boy, couldn’t have been more than four. He wanted to go back to his friend Tommy’s house for a play date. His mother would pause in front of each painting with an animal in it, like the Cezanne boy leading a horse. Then in a loud voice, so we all could appreciate both what a genius mother she was and how advanced her child was, she’d ask the kid what animal it was. The kid, bless him, would inquire about going back to Tommy’s, or become fascinated with something else in the room.

I did make the re-acquaintance of some of my old MoMA buddies: ”Broadway Boogie Woogie”; Brancusi’s “Bird in Flight”; the Oskar Kokoschka of the seated couple with the huge hands; Jasper Johns’ “American Flag”; Monet’s water lilies; the creepy Joseph Cornell box with the baby doll trapped by tree branches; “Starry Night” (not that I could get anywhere near it); the Matisse dancers in a circle (which you’ll miss if you’re not careful, because it’s been hung on a stairway). I made some new art friends- there was a wall of some great August Sander photographs, mostly old peasant ladies. There’s also a Joan Miro assemblage with a big, stuffed green parrot on top. Some Atgets, but not the reflected Paris shop windows. Some Seurats, but not the circus acrobats. Some mid-career Rothkos, but not the darker, later ones. Half the problem with MoMA is they have so much stuff, there’s no way they can display anything but a fraction of it. No matter how big the building is.

On some level, I hesitate to write anything about visual art because I have no training in it. I haven’t had a studio class since high school, and I did not excel in it. I never had an art history class, per se (though I had history classes with art in it). I bought a copy of Janson’s History of Art in college because that was the text book for the course, and I could never get in the class because majors had to take it. But I’m certainly interested in it, I’ve seen a lot of it and have my painter favorites. I also use art when I’m writing plays, for the emotions and images it conjures up. And when I’m teaching, particularly with students who are not at ease with or in the habit of discussing or expressing emotion, some how they do much better with trying to answer ”how does that reproduction of a piece of art make you feel?” than answering the same questions in regards to their own hearts, or words on a page.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Tennis, Anyone?

I saw “Deuce” last night at The Music Box. Terrence McNally’s play about a famous doubles team stars Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes. As a play, it’s pretty slight and not one of Mr. McNally’s best. Though other than Arthur Kopit’s hilarious “The Day the Whores Came Out to Play Tennis,” I’ve been hard pressed to call to mind another play about tennis.

What the play does is allow Miss Lansbury and Miss Seldes to work together for 90 minutes. We were sitting in the eighth row, and could see every sigh, every raised eyebrow, every emotion passing across a face. The subsidiary characters in the play interrupt the action between the two leading characters, which really gets wearing after awhile, but they also give the play its elegiac tone. I couldn’t help thinking that I will never see Miss Lansbury on stage again, which is sad to contemplate.

I grew up with the original Broadway cast recordings of “Anyone Can Whistle” and “Mame.” The first time I saw Miss Lansbury on stage was in “Sweeney Todd,” in that barn of a theatre, the Gershwin (then the Uris). It was the last night that she and Len Cariou were in it together, and it was absolutely mesmerizing, however far away our seats were from the stage. Miss Lansbury was in her late 50s then, and musicals are hard work at any age. When I was still acting, she was who I wanted to be when I grew up. Now, she’s 81, and who can blame the woman if she wants to retire and spend time with her grandchildren?

I’ve admired Miss Seldes since I saw her in the original production of Tony Kushner’s “A Bright Room Called Day.” That play was so much of its time (the first Bush administration), I have a difficult time imagining what a revival would be like, though I know they’ve been done. Set in Berlin in the early 1930s, the emotions it evoked were identical to those in the air in New York City. And Miss Seldes was somehow able to inhabit the play and its period, but simultaneously to let the audience see her in a completely contemporary light. I still don’t know how she did it, but it was chilling. Miss Seldes is such a fixture in New York theatre I can’t imagine her retiring, though she’s not much younger than Miss Lansbury.

At the curtain call, I stood up for the ovation. I rarely do that, because it’s usually completely unwarranted. But for those two ladies, who wouldn’t?

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Shakespeare in Another Park

I am embarrassed to admit that I’d never seen a performance by Gorilla Rep until last Wednesday. I knew about them, of course- they’re in their 15th season of doing free, classical theatre in New York City parks. Their work was certainly more accessible to me when I lived in Manhattan. But I took three subways, and got to Riverside Park to see their latest production of “Henry V.”

I’ve seen a lot of Shakespeare in my life, both live and on film. My senior thesis in college was “Actors’ Interpretations of Hamlet,” with a slight bending of the thesis to be able to include the E. Gordon Craig/Stanislavski production at the Moscow Art Theatre. I saw the “Henry V” that the Public did a few years ago. I saw a “Measure for Measure” at the Riverside Theatre (which is located in an Iowa City park; but it’s basically an amphitheatre with sides to it, capped by an Elizabethan stage).

I was a little leery of seeing a production of “Henry V” with the country at war. There’s always a chance that some overly enthusiastic director will go crazy trying to bend Shakespeare to his will be making it all pro-war (which I don’t believe it is) or all anti-war (which it is decidedly not). I need not have worried.

Christopher Sanderson’s direction is by far the best I’ve seen of a Shakespeare play in ages. You are draw into the action so quickly, and held there the whole time. The changes in location (the audience follows the actors to various parts of a fenced section of the park) don’t stop the action, they pull you along with it. At the same time, no matter how close you get to the actors, you never get that uncomfortable “oh, my God, it’s audience participation waiting to happen” feeling, nor that your presence or space is somehow intruding on theirs. There is some direct address, but not too much. Sanderson uses the natural world- a hill, trees, the setting of the sun (the fireflies add a great deal, but I assume he can’t take credit for them)- very specifically and to great effect. And it didn’t come over me gradually- I think I smiled all the way through the prologue (“O, for a muse of fire”), and not just because I had to learn it in school.

The performances ranged from great to okay. The comedic roles were all funny (which is key, and I have seen them not bee very funny at all). Ru-Chen and Frances You Sanderson as Alice and Katherine were ebullient, and in the last scene, touching, as Alice and Katherine, And it’s difficult to do that well, particularly in French. I had a very difficult time understanding the actor who played the King of France, but he brought such great enthusiasm and energy to his role. Jacob Knoll played the Prologue, Chorus and Epilogue, and he was absolutely riveting. I wish I’d seen his Hamlet last May. I understand why there was no intermission, but at 2 hours and 40 minutes, the last half hour was a bit of a haul. I wasn’t bored, I just needed to stretch.

So if you hurry, you can still make it to Riverside Park by 8PM tonight for the final performance of “Henry V.”