Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Death of the Doodle

In my youth, when I wanted to be Angela Lansbury (the Sondheim-singing Angela Lansbury who’d made “The Manchurian Candidate”), I spent two college summers as an apprentice at the Yale Cabaret. It was run by Yale School of Drama students, we used the Drama School shops and the upstairs cabaret in the building on Park Street. It was two and a half months of hard work, almost giving me the illusion that I’d been to the Yale Drama School without the benefit of graduating.

I lived in one sublet apartment or another on the far side of Park Street, so I’d often get breakfast to go or a sandwich at Joe Gag’s, the greasy spoon on the corner of Park and Chapel Streets (I think it was the corner, or was that the greengrocer’s?). But backup breakfast place, or breakfast if I had to be in the Drama School proper I always got from Yankee Doodle. It had a really great red, white and blue sign above the door, with an artist’s rendering of Yankee Doodle.

But 58 years after it opened, the rent’s gone up so high, the Beckwith family can’t afford it anymore. Monday was the Doodle’s last day.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Customer Service?

Every playwright I know uses a computer. You may write a draft in longhand, but you have to type eventually. I received a new printer as a gift for Christmas. I am through with lame home office printers that have been foisted on me by eager Staples employees. Now, I have a genuine office laserjet, in a short of post-World War II streamlined Italian design. All silver and gray plastic.

I’d been thinking about what to do with the old printer; six months past its warranty, and guaranteed to die sooner rather than later. I decided to keep it, not so much as back up, but because it does pack better if I have to be out of town for awhile.

So the moment of truth arrives last Thurs. I hook up the new printer, and load the ink and the software. It works fine. Though it’s strange to me that no only did it arrive with no manual, it didn’t come with a physical warranty, either. Friday afternoon I try to print again, and it doesn’t work. I get an error message saying the print job has been stopped- not by me. So I turn the printer on and off; I try a different USB cable; I reboot the MacBook. Big fat nothing.

I call Hewlett Packard customer service. They keep me on hold for half an hour; I get a human at one point, but he won’t talk to me because I’m calling about a Mac. I get another human who tells me despite the fact the printer is new and worked fine yesterday, it’s an MS Word problem; I need to download four patches from the Microsoft site. I try that- nothing will allow me to install the software. My boyfriend comes over, and he thinks it’s the printer drivers. I admit that was my first thought as well, but I couldn’t believe that Hewlett Packard would sell a new printer that cost $200 and give you old software. I was mistaken: Hewlett Packard did exactly that, wasted a minimum of two hours of my life, the technical support was flat-out wrong, and Tom and I spent a half an hour trying to download the current printer drivers from the HP website, their server wasn’t responding.

I can’t help thinking that a printer manufacturer with better customer service could, as they used to say, “Eat their lunch.”

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Ferrets in Heat

I’ve always had kind of a soft spot for ferrets. They’re not as cute as meerkats, but a playwright friend of mine’s sister had a pet ferret. The ferret’s favorite game was to slide under my friend’s bedroom door, knock over his glass of Coke, and lap it up. Who knew that ferrets knew it’s the real thing?

I don’t know if you have been following the ferrets’ latest foray into literature. I didn’t read last week’s New York Times article about this incident very carefully. But last night my former roommate forwarded a Newsweek article to me (“Move Over, ‘Meerkat Manor’”: and I was convulsed with giggles. Instances of plagiarism are fairly frequent in the press- and I don’t mean cribbing your dorm mate’s essay on the importance of New World images in “Pride and Prejudice.” Even the august Doris Kearns Goodwin got caught doing it. I haven’t done it, but I know of at least one instance of someone else passing off my work as his own. But what kind of Author’s League member steals from a nature writer?

Paul Tolme is a freelancer, who specializes in science and nature features. In 2005, he wrote a feature about ferrets in the Dakotas. The first week of January, he was contacted by a romance novel blogger ( who’d found pieces of his prose in Cassie Edwards’ novel “Shadow Bear.” The pieces of his work, in the context of the bodice ripper surrounding them, are hilarious. I don’t want to paraphrase and ruin the real thing. Click on the link above, and get ready for hot-hot-hot ferrets!

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Life without the Shoop-Shoop

In case you missed it, there was an obituary in Friday’s New York Times about a man who had a large and lasting influence on many childhoods, including mine. His name was Richard Knerr, and he co-founded Wham-O in his garage with his friend Spud Melin.

Try to imagine an American childhood, particularly in the 1960s, with no Shoop-Shoop Hula Hoops? Mine was pink. Or no SuperBalls- my brother constantly risked my mother’s wrath and broken glass by throwing their SuperBalls in the house. And what about the Frisbee? My college diploma is in the shape of a Frisbee (or so it’s said; my alma mater is nicknamed Frisbee U., too, but that’s not a favorite of anyone who went there). What about the American dog? Who of us hasn’t thrown a dog spit encrusted Frisbee to a leaping hound? And if not played with, at least seen the TV commercials for the Slip ‘N Slide and Silly String?

We would have none of these experiences or memories with Knerr

The Times obituary (link above) also mentions some of Wham-O’s less successful products, including a $9.95 mail order mink coat, and a $119 DIY bomb shelter. My personal favorite is their first: they developed a slingshot “to hurl meat to their pet falcons to train them.” Why didn’t Knerr and Melin live on my block?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Khalil Gibran Lives On

There was a very interesting New Yorker article last week by the reliable Joan Acocella about Khalil Gibran. He is the third-best selling poet of all-time, after Shakespeare and Lao-tzu. My parents have two books of his; at various points in my life I’ve had up to three copies of “The Prophet” (all gifts). But I knew nothing much about him. Turns out he was from what is now Syria; his mother brought him and her other children to Boston’s South End (where Chinatown is now).

The place where I see his name most frequently these days is in reference to the public Arab school in Brooklyn, officially known as the Khalil Gibran International Academy. The previous, founding principal, Dhaba “Debbie” Almontaser, was fired after controversy surrounding her wearing a t-shirt that said Intifada NYC on it.

Be that as it may, there’s been a lot of press coverage of her, the school, reactions of parents, etc. There is also an underlying assumption that Arab school, in this case, equals Muslim school. Many female students and mothers wear scarves on their heads. So I was more than a little surprised when I read in the Acocella article that Khalil Gibran and his family were Maronite Catholics. One source I read said his grandfather was a Maronite priest. It doesn’t surprise me that there are Arab Christians- I certainly knew more Arab Christians than Arab Muslims when I was growing up. But it does surprise me in our religiously polarized world that a, at the very least, nominally Catholic poet’s name is on the front of the Arab school. The woman who replaced Almontaser is Holly Anne Reichert, who has taught in the Middle East, and previously had mentored ESL teacher.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

As a Hound, How Could I Ignore?

It’s not always easy to get a hard copy of the New York Times on a holiday like New Year’s Day. They tend to do a smaller print run than usual. But this year, on our way to a party in Fort Greene, I snagged a copy of the paper that I read when we got home. Being a Tuesday, there was a Science Time section. And I was disturbed to read an article about dog-killing in my hometown (link above).

It seems that the medical school at Case Western Reserve University, my almost alma mater (I dropped out of law school after one grueling year), where my parents and two great uncles went to school, they kill dogs. They are the last medical school in the country that uses a dog with its exposed beating heart to teach cardiology. When they’re done with the dogs, they “dispose” of them.

I don’t believe in the absolute ban of animal testing- there will be drugs or procedures that can only be tested on animals. I don’t believe in killing rabbits for mascara, either. But the realization that the teaching hospital where I was born, where in the 1990s I knew the dean of students at the med school has been and continues to kill dogs (at least until the end of the month) bothers me. Cutting up a dog is not like dissecting a frog or a fetal pig in high school biology, or eating a steak. It’s a dog.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Oh, the Humanity and Other Exclamations

In going through my stack of blog subjects, which I can never keep up with, I found a program from another show that’s closed. “Oh, the Humanity and other Exclamations: Five Short Plays by Will Eno” was at the Flea until December 22nd, and I saw it early in the run. A playwright friend came I from out of town and it was his first choice.

I’d read and heard about Eno, particularly about “THOM PAINE (based on nothing)” and the controversy the play caused (I unfortunately missed seeing the show). That kind of talk (“it’s not a play!”) makes me suspicious. Surely the theatre is broad enough to hold lots of different kinds of plays. Back in the 80s, there was s show on Broadway, “Andre Heller’s Wonderhouse,” that was made up of old-fashioned acts from European circuses- bell-ringers, a water glass player, a lady yodeler, etc. It was just great. It received a vitriolic review from the New York Times (the then chief theatre critic did not think circus worthy of Broadway), and closed quickly. I never really understood the critic’s motivation- was it to punish the producers? To somehow keep the theatre pure for his readers? What is to be gained by keeping rigid boundaries around what is theatre and what isn’t?

The writing of “Oh, the Humanity” was really inspiring: Evocative, clear, humorous, resonating images, the perfect note of human fragility. There were pieces that resonated more with me than others. In contrast to the Voice review (link above), I didn’t think as much of “The Bully Composition” or “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rain” as I did of the other pieces. Jim Simpson, the artistic director of the Flea, directed, and didn’t muck up the evening with too much realism. I’d never seen Marisa Tomei on stage (though “My Cousin Vinny” runs on cable ceaselessly), and she gave a nuanced, thoughtful performance. Brian Hutchinson’s performance was amazing, particularly in “Behold the Coach, in a Blazer, Uninsured.” I’d never seen or heard of him, and I left the Flea wanting to work with him. I am eager to see what he, Tomei and Eno do next.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Back from Christmas- "Peter and Jerry"

It’s all started receding into the past- the music, the present-wrapping, the shopping, my 76 day saga of trying to get Tom’s present (ordered October 21st, arrived December 27th), cooking, cleaning, the houseguest that was supposed to come for Christmas but came for New Year’s, and, at least until the 23rd or so, trying to write at least a little.

But today, the presents are given, the guest returned home and I finished the second draft of the libretto I’ve been neglecting and emailed it off to Alan Cancelino, the composer. The one theatre thing I did make time for over the holidays was last Friday I went to see “Edward Albee’s Peter and Jerry” at Second Stage, which has since closed. I have seen many amateur productions of “The Zoo Story” (what would college drama departments do without “The Zoo Story”?), but I’d never seen an Equity production of it, nor the new first act, which was originally produced at Hartford Stage in 2004.

What a treat! Other than the Anthony Page directed “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” on Broadway in 2004 and the Larry Sacharow directed “Counting the Ways” in 2003, it is by far the best-directed Albee play I’ve ever seen. Pam McKinnon has a much stronger grasp on “Peter and Jerry” than David Esbjornson did of “The Goat” or Emily Mann did of “All Over.” The first act flies by, and Johanna Day is absolutely delightful as Ann, Peter’s wife. Peter is played by Bill Pullman. You completely believe that these two people love each other and have been married for years. The exposition is deft (of course, we’re in the hands of the master), the conflicts deep and not easily resolved, it was a joy to watch.

Then after intermission, it’s time for Jerry and the dog. The first half of it went as well as the first act had (the friend I saw it with had a similar experience). Something happened that brought the play to a grinding halt. My first thought was that because the actors had a second show, they were saving themselves for the evening performance. Then it seemed to me they stopped acting on the lines at some point, and got lost in subtext land- it all got slow and murky. My third thought was that perhaps Dallas Roberts wasn’t as generous an actor as Pullman is, and they weren’t working off each other so much as they might.

This morning as it happens, I was reading the late Mel Gussow’s biography of Albee (Edward Albee: A Singular Journey), and got to the description of the first American production of “The Zoo Story,” which starred William Daniels and George Maharis. Even that production had problems with keeping the conflict rolling all the way through. But I swear that problem is less in the text than in its execution.