Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bodies- The Exhibition

Yesterday, my boyfriend and I went to see Bodies- The Exhibition downtown. We'd been talking about going for literally years; I hesitated because I felt uncomfortable about supporting something that consisted of many bodies, with no idea of where they came from, or if there was any consent by the dead people or their relatives. There's a disclaimer sign at the front of the line saying the bodies had all passed through the Chinese police at some time, and could be dead prisoners, the tone of which was basically "it's not our fault!"
There are eight of these exhibitions in the US and Canada. It would take a lot of bodies to make them possible. The presenter, Premier Exhibitions, also runs the "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition" which is in the old Times building between 43rd and 44th Street. That truly strikes me as grave-robbing, and I will not see it.
Bodies is a lot of bodies. A souped-up version of those plastic models you had in biology class, that goes through the nervous system, circulatory system, skeletal and muscular systems, etc. Many bodies are sliced into pieces, and shot through with various colors of dye. There is, as Tom pointed out, a freak show element to all of this, particularly as two of the exhibits near the end are conjoined twins (with reference to Chang and Eng), and the biggest human thumb you've ever seen. The one exhibit that freaked me out was something I'd read about but never seen, a teratoma. It is a human cancerous growth that includes things that do not belong in it, namely hair and teeth. Now, granted, I looked at it three times (the third time was to write the name down), but, oh, man, that's just not right!

Our Gang

As I child, I watched many Our Gang comedy shorts on television. I've been watching them again on DVD over the past few months. There are horrible things about them, particularly the racism. But there are also wonderful moments that are funny and true about family, siblings, class and the way little kids think and play with one another.
There's one that's been stuck in my mind for years- Alfalfa sings "I'm the Barber of Seville," over and over again. It turns out that this is from the "Our Gang Follies of 1938." Alfalfa abandons his "low-art" origins, determined to become an opera singer. The bulk of the short is an elaborate dream sequence, years later, set at Club Spanky. Spanky has become an impresario, complete with top hat, cape and cane. Darla is the featured ingenue in the floor show. There is a big production number with Buckwheat. All the white children are paired off in couples and look swanky. All the African-American children are paired off in couples and are shoeshine boys and maids. I cringed. It's amazing to me what I did not remember of this short.

The Canterbury Tales

I have been thinking about The Canterbury Tales a lot lately. First, I saw "A Canterbury Tale" a few weeks ago, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's updated (ca. 1944) take on some wartime Canterbury pilgrims. There's a few soldiers, people who live in the town and a Land Girl, all thrown together by circumstance. It's beautifully shot, but pretty sentimental.
Over Christmas, I read Joan Acocella's All England: 'The Canterbury Tales' Retold in the December 21 and 28 issue of The New Yorker. I'm not sure I've looked at it much since high school (we had to memorize the prologue). It did teach me more than I knew about Chaucer; like the fact that he's buried in Westminster Abbey has nothing to do with his art, but the fact that he was an administrator there (a sad commentary)! Acocella's description of Peter Ackroyd's version (The Canterbury Tales: A Retelling) made want to skip it, but she makes Vincent Hopper's pony of it sound great.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know

I really wanted to love this book. And I'm sorry to say that I didn't. Alexandra Horowitz has plenty of interesting things to say, but her style is so uneven as to be distracting. She teaches psychology at Columbia University. The most fluid parts of the book are her direct observations of her own, late dog, Pumpernickel, but the narrative sections that string them together are all over the place.
The best thing Horowitz says is to let you dog be a dog. Let them sniff to their heart's content; get a little smelly in their doggie-way. In the Sniff chapter, she compares human noses that have 6,000,000 sensory receptors, with beagle noses, that have 300,000,000 (this could explain why our dog can find a discarded chicken bone under a foot of snow). Dogs also have part of a bone in their nose called a vomeronasal organ, that also exists in reptiles, which detects and processes information from pheromones. She also includes a section on dogs trained to detect cancer. The results are pretty amazing; in one study, a group of dogs trained for this tried 1,272 times to detect cancerous cells and were only wrong 14 times.

This I Believe

I'd always assumed that the original Edward R. Murrow "This I Believe" was some sort of Christianity-lite radio show, way back in the 1950s. (It's said that the title was inverted in that way in reference to Murrow's Quaker mother.) Then I started listening to the podcasts of the new "This I Believe," which featured some of the old ones (William O. Douglas talking about the evils of greed and American imperialism being un-Christian is pretty great) and many new. One of my neighbors left out books last week, and I snagged a copy of the 2007 paperback, which also mixes up "essays" old and new.
The new essay I particularly enjoyed was Harold Taw's about feeding monkeys. At his birth in Burma, a monk instructed his parents to have him feed monkeys on his birthday. That way, they would always prosper. Easy enough, while they were in or near the Burmese jungle. But after the family immigrated to the US, monkeys are not always so easy to come by. The tone is weighty, but at the same time you know that Taw can see the humor in it, too.
There are old two essays that I liked. One is by Thomas Mann, about the transitory nature of life (it's not clear to me whether this was just before or just after he immigrated to Switzerland). He certainly knew about that. The other is by Martha Graham (she was such a good writer) about how being a dancer is being "an athlete of God," and how much work, discipline and time that requires.

The Lures of Barnes & Noble

I was really early for rehearsal on Sunday (I left early because of the snow), so I stopped in at the new (ish) Barnes and Noble on 86th Street. In my book selection, I narrowed it down to the new Terry Teachout biography of Louis Armstrong and Joseph Epstein's Fred Astaire. The Epstein book was more portable and cheaper, so I went with that.
What a frustrating read! If I hadn't read anything else about Fred Astaire or seen his films, I would assume that he was a clotheshorse who was only capable of achieving his full potential as a dancer when partnered with Ginger Rogers. I don't think that's true. There's also something in Epstein's tone (smugness? snarkiness? something along those lines) that grates more the more you read. Which is strange because he's not really a theatre, film or dance writer (nor does he address any of those aspects of Astaire in the way one might expect). This book is part of a series by Yale University Press (full disclosure: I used to freelance for them) on Icons of America.
I did enjoy Nureyev's opinion of Astaire ("the greatest dancer in American history"), and a few lines from Cholly Atkins almost redeems the rest of the book: "He's a descriptive dancer who works painstakingly with his musical accompaniment; he was the first to dance to programme music, describing every note in the dance." I'd never thought about it that way before, but, exactly.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Buccaneer

My friend and favorite actor (wish I could work with him all the time) Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum has a play of his own running at The Tank this week- The Buccaneer (link above). I saw an earlier incarnation in the back yard at Rudy's a few summers ago. The Buccaneer is an inspired, funny, fight-heavy (dare I say "fight-tastic"?) serial melodrama set in Queen Isabella's Spain. The Buccaneer has been parted from his true love, Rosalia, by Spanish politics. There are lots of swords, and even the women get to fence- yea! The website tells me it is inspired by swashbucklers and telenovelas, but at the same time it has a goofy, almost Monty Python sensibility. Jacob himself appears as a Thug and A Sinister Figure.
All of the actors are good, but I particularly enjoyed Tom Evans as the British Ambassador, Ethan James Halifax III, Lord Westmoreland, and Rebecca White as the blood-thirsty, lisping Queen.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Fallen Idol

I recently watched "The Fallen Idol" again. I'd seen it years ago, and I used to have the paperback of Graham Greene's The Fallen Idol (originally entitled "The Basement Room" and "The Third Man" (basically, the movie treatment). I remembered that I liked it, but I'd forgotten how good it is. Greene and Reed was a wonderful combination. This film is driven by Ralph Richardson's performance, aided by Bobby Henry as the little boy, Philippe. It takes place over two days, and Richardson is accused of his wife's murder. All of Greene's guilt-though-nominally innocent work is in full form. It also features a young Jack Hawkins as Detective Ames. As a child, I had nightmares about being trapped in the movie of "Kidnapped," with Jack Hawkins after me. There is one egregiously racist moment, in which Richardson is telling the child about killing a black man in Africa. But thinking about it, I'm not sure that isn't Greene making a stab at the evils of the Empire.
I'd been talking to my dad about Reed a few weeks ago, and we both wondered after those three fantastic movies in the 19 40s ("The Third Man", "The Fallen Idol", and "Odd Mann Out") why he'd made movies for another 20 years, but the later films never reached the level of those three. The documentary accompanying "The Fallen Idol" suggests that the partnership with Alexander Korda gave Reed a basis to take a range of projects and run with them. But after Korda's death, Reed continued to work on a range of projects but not with the same effect. It also talks briefly about Reed's childhood, and how he used to watch his father, Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree, in rehearsal (his father was the pre-eminent Victorian actor-manager).


I had read Heinrich von Kleist's short story "Michael Kohlhaas", and E.L. Doctorow's novel and seen the 1981 Milos Forman movie. My friend Cheryl and I wondered if Jimmy Cagney (he plays the Police Commissioner- it was his last movie appearance) remembered the times the story is set in. I even had the orginal cast CD with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens' haunting songs. But I had not seen it, until the matinee yesterday.
I just loved it. All the actors acted and sang beautifully (not always true in musicals, I'm afraid). Marcia Milgrom's Dodge's direction was clear (pretty key in show this big) and affecting. Terence McNally's book is brisk and informative, but you never feel weighed down by too much information. Donald Holder's lighting was as wonderful as ever. In particular, I enjoyed Christiane Noll. She was utterly believable as Mother, as was the way she grew from a doting Westchester wife and mother into her own person.
One of the things that surprised me the most was the set. Derek McLane designed, who I worked with a million years ago (I was Cathy Zuber's assistant at the Yale Summer Cabaret when he was the resident set designer there; they were both still in the Drama School). I saw the set when I curtain rose and thought, "Oh, my God, he's channeled Eugene Lee!" But as the show went on, I realized that McLane had done something very difficult. He built a structure that was able to transform into a ship dock, a train station, an Atlantic City pavilion and finally the Morgan Library. Now maybe you can fudge how the Morgan Library looks if you've never been there, but I've been there many times. And McLean's structure is just enough of how it really looks to give it verisimilitude.
Several other playwrights had told me that they find the show (now and ten years ago) "cold." I didn't feel that at all, though that may be true in less skillful directorial hands.

Our Dog

It was a year ago yesterday that my boyfriend and I rescued our dog from New York City's Animal Control. I think (and I extracted his agreement last night) that it is the best collective decision that we've ever made. Augustus is not a perfect dog- sometimes he can be quite infuriating. But he is fun and funny and sweet, and has quite a personality. We have both gotten more joy from Augie than any other single thing. I can't recommend adopting more highly!
Photo by Tom Bovo, of Augie at the Owl's Head dog run.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Innocent

I first read Ian McEwan's "The Innocent" a few years ago, after I'd read "Atonement" and "Black Dogs." "Black Dogs" is one of the creepiest post-war novels set in Western Europe that I know of.
Over the past few days, I read "The Innocent" again, because I'm researching a new play. I am so careless with saving novels these days (and as if to prove that, one of my neighbors left a general cache in the front hall this morning), I had to buy a new copy. My rule is if it's fiction and in the public domain or I'm not totally in love with it, it goes out.
I had half of the novel to finish and take notes on today, and for a 40 minute chunk of it this afternoon, the radio was playing Beethoven's Eroica. I always associate Beethoven with Berlin; maybe because of the Philharmonic? Between McEwan's words and the music, I was somewhere very far away from this decade and New York City.
There's a quote from Jonathan Carroll of the Washington Post on the back cover, suggesting that this novel does for Berlin what Graham Greene's screenplay (well, actually he doesn't mention Greene, but he Should have) and Carol Reed's direction does for "The Third Man." I definitely think he's onto something. And McEwan is so good at reeling in the reader. Though the bulk of the novel is set before the Wall went up, I was completely convinced that I was there, though in reality I never made it to Berlin until a few years after the Wall came down. Doing research when the text is this good (I finished Guenter Grass' "My Century" yesterday, so that's two in a row) always makes me feel like a bit of a slacker. But it sure goes a lot faster.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My Stack

I have been whittling away at my stack of books and magazines. I'm afraid that I'm turning into my parents- there are entirely too many magazines. In the past week (this includes two long plane trips and yesterday's subway commute) I have polished off a book of short stories by Raymond Chandler (well, I was about 15 pp. into it already, and I know I read in it high school); two copies of American Theatre; two copies of The Dramatist; three New Yorkers; and a novel.
The September/October issue of The Dramatist is I think the best ever. It is the Master Class issue, and if you have any interest in writing plays or musicals ever in your life, contact the Guild now to get a copy (www.dramatistsguild.com). Out of twelve essays, eight were really exceptional. The other four playwrights don't write plays that are my cup of tea, so I didn't expect much from their essays. But the eight great ones are surely worth the $8 cost.
In that same issue, there is an article on discrimination against women playwrights by Sheri Wilner and that good Julia Jordan, who organized the women playwrights meetings in New York. In the November issue of American Theatre, there is a terrific distillation of both the recent Princeton study and the NYSCA study of seven years ago by Marsha Norman. She puts both studies in the context of her experiences as a woman playwright since the 1970s. And she is quite blunt: "Either women can't write, or there is some serious resistance to producing the work of women on the American stage." Now, you might say that is not news to you (nor is it to me, God knows); but it is certainly refreshing to hear that from a woman who has had multiple plays and musicals on Broadway and co-runs the Juilliard playwriting program. I don't know a woman playwright who doesn't feel that way- not a single one. And up until last fall, it really didn't get spoken of that much. Grumbling, of course, and a whine once in awhile. My feeling always was I couldn't possibly turn the tide of opinion against women playwrights, and my only option was to keep writing and hope for change. Maybe it will come now.
My last new read was a novel by Jonathan Rabb called Shadow and Light. It is set in Berlin in 1927. Much of it takes place in and around UFA, the great film studio, and Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre and (briefly) Max Reinhardt are characters. Rabb never overdoes it with historical facts and famous people, so you never feel like there's too much coincidence. The characters are recognizably human (not always true in historical novels), and in the case of Lang, you sense that this is indeed a man who would make a movie like M.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Brief Encounter

The first time I saw Brief Encounter, I saw it in a theatre; I was a teenager. I thought it was just about the best love story ever (okay, I was an overly romantic teenager). I hadn't seen it in years, though one of the lines kept coming back to me ("Go, you'll miss your train") and I could not remember what it was from. Six months ago I saw the movie again, and reclaimed the source of the line, and I've just watched it again. I couldn't remember why I'd rented it from Netflix again, and about ten minutes into it, I went "oh, yeah, now I know."
There are places in it 65 years later that seem kind of silly, in particular, the throbbing Rachmaninoff score. I really don't need to be told how to feel here- the other elements do it just fine. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are not pretty- they are both in their mid-thirties (and frankly, look a decade older), we can see their wrinkles, they look perfectly ordinary, which is the point. I never really think of Coward as a dramatic playwright- I think most of his dramas haven't aged well at all, while his songs and some of the comedies certainly have (I wish I'd seen Angela Lansbury do Madame Arcati). David Lean's direction is so restrained for this little story, and he gets such great performances out of his actors, as he did in Dr. Zhivago (was Omar Sharif ever so good before or since?), and Great Expectations (how can you not fall in love with Alec Guiness' Herbert Pocket?). The guilt and shame that the adulterous characters feel is so genuine it's palpable. The movie is still moving.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Esther Hautzig

When I was six or seven, I bought a book at the Fairfax Elementary School book store (one book rack in Miss McCracken's classroom) called Let's Cook without Cooking, full of recipes that you could make without turning on the stove. My personal favorite was peanut butter butterscotch fudge.
When I was ten years old, I took a book out of the Fairfax Elementary School Library- The Endless Steppe. Both of these books were by Esther Hautzig. She died on Sunday, November 4th (link to the Times obituary above).
I loved The Endless Steppe- I borrowed it multiple times, and would keep reading it over and over until I had to return it. It was her own story- how Soviet soldiers stormed her parents house in Vilnius in 1941, and transported her family to Siberia for forced labor when she was eleven years old. Hautzig (her maiden name was Rudomin) worked in gypsum mines and in construction. She, her parents and her grandmother survived the war; ironically, the Soviets saved them from being exterminated by the Nazis because they were Jews.
Hautzig wrote in a clear, reassuring voice in Let's Cook without Cooking. In The Endless Steppe, she wrote in the voice of a teenager, like the teenager that she was when she was arrested in 1941. And frankly, not unlike the ten year old I was, growing up in Ohio. That was the extraordinary thing about her autobiography, that it was so entirely accessible, even to a kid growing up in the Midwest. I didn't realize she lived in New York; if I had, I think I would have asked her out for tea. Because after reading her book, you really felt like you knew her.

The Paradine Case

I am a bit of a Hitchcock junkie, though I certainly don't love each and every movie. Until a few years ago, I had never seen The Paradine Case (1947), and I really enjoyed it. Alida Valli, Charles Laughton and Ethel Barrymore, Louis Jourdan in his first English-speaking role- what's not to love? Well, I saw it again last night and I'm rethinking my opinion. The screenplay tips you off fairly early who did it. Gregory Peck is the lead. I've always thought he was sort of wooden, but that's particularly true here. That's also true of Ann Todd who plays his long-suffering (oh, boy, does she suffer) wife. It's actually pretty unsatisfying. The most striking thing to me (which I remembered from the first time I saw it) was the establishing shots of London, still badly bombed.
IMDB tells me that Alida Valli's was born Alida Altenburger; she went into hiding to avoid being executed under Mussolini's government (she refused to perform in propaganda films); and her first husband was involved in a "drug, sex and murder scandal" with his mistress.
Also on the DVD was a Lux Radio Theatre version of "The Paradine Case" with Joseph Cotten playing the Peck role. Much better! Cotten and Valli had just returned from Vienna after shooting The Third Man, though it wasn't released in the US until 19489.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cheaper by the Dozen

About a month ago, Jill Lepore reviewed Matthew Stewart's new book, The Management Myth: Why the Experts Keep Getting It Wrong. Fredrick Winslow Taylor was the so-called Father of Scientific Management, and worked as the first management consultant with corporations. Among his disciples were Louis D. Brandeis, the reform-minded attorney who went on to serve on the US Supreme Court, and Frank and Lillian Moller Gilbreth, the parents of the family immortalized in Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes.
Stewart's book starts out by claiming that Taylor fudged his numbers, so that scientific management wasn't so scientific after all. His stabs at efficiency (having workmen take fewer steps and make fewer moves in completing a task) was called Taylorizing. While Stewart's book addresses the foibles of management consulting, I was drawn to the article because much of it is about the Gilbreths. I spent many hours reading, over and over again, Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and Frank Gilbreth, Jr.'s two books about their family. I also saw the 1950 movie, though in retrospect the casting seems very strange. Clifton Web as a father of 13 (one child died of diptheria)? I can buy Myrna Loy having a PhD from Brown, but as the mother of all those kids, all of whom were breast-fed? The real Gilbreths used motion study to improve work efficiency, and used a movie camera (quite revolutionary in the 1910s) to measure it. Frank Gilbreth died in 1924, but Lillian Moller Gilbreth carried on their work, initially as a consultant and then on the faculty at Purdue University. Lepore says: "If you have an island in your kitchen, or a rolling cart, or if you think about a work triangle, you've got Lillian Gilbreth to thank." Dr. Gilbreth died in 1972, at the age of 93. Their photos are from Wikipedia.

Dante Alighieri

Week before last, I spent a lot of quality time with Dante (mostly Inferno), working on a new ten-minute play. I had read The Divine Comedy for a class in college (Dorothy Sayers' translation, which unfortunately is out of print). What impressed me in looking at Dante again is how modern (he was born in 1265) much of his work feels. Here is a brief selection of my favorite quotes from him. I will not attempt writing out the Italian, though pretty much everything sounds better in Italian.
The Inferno

When I had journeyed half our life's way
I found myself within a shadowed forest
for I had lost the path that does not stray. Canto I, lines 1-3.

There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
In misery. Canto V, lines 121-123.

He listens well who takes notes. Canto XV, line 99.


Thou shalt prove how salt is the taste
Of another man's bread and how hard
Is the way and down another man's stairs. Canto XVII, lines 58-60

The night that hides hings from us. Canto XXIII, line 3.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ali and Nino

My friend Tatiana, who shares my devotion to Dorothy Parker and is one of the most voracious readers I know, lent me a copy of Ali and Nino: A Love Story. It isn't earth-shatteringly brilliant prose, but quite compelling. But it is largely set in the 1910s in an interesting part of the world: the Caucusus, where Georgia, Armenian and what becomes Baku, Azerbaijan. The story is about Ali (a Muslim Azerbaijani) who falls in loves and marries Nino (a Georgian princess). Much of the novel takes place during World War I (Veteran's Day appropriate).
The cover of the novel says that it's by Kurban Said. The copyright page says it's owned by the late Leela Ehrenfels, the stepdaughter of an Austrian countess, Elfriede Ehrenfels von Bodmershof. I started looking for more information about Said and the Baroness. It seems that Kurban Said is a pseudonym, but other than that, there are a few possibilities for the author. There is a great New Yorker article from 1999 about exactly this: "A Reporter at Large: The Man from the East" by Tom Reiss. The novel has a reputation for being much-loved in Azerbaijan and Iran. Reiss' hunt-the-author tale is quite a story in itself. If it is not the Baroness, it is Essad Bey, who was born Lev Nassimbaum. Nassimbaum grew up in Baku, where his father was in the oil business. The Reiss article has wonderful photographs in it, too, including a Viennese group shot with Mike Nichols as a toddler and his father with Nassimbaum. Naussimbaum made two trips to the U.S., where he became friendly with George Sylvester Viereck, who was later jailed as a Nazi agent. (In college, I studied with Viereck's late son Peter, who was most definitely not a Nazi agent.) Eventually, Naussibaum fled Germany for Austria, and fled Austria for Positano, Italy, where he died of natural causes in 1942.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

Rhoda Janzen is a poet who teaches at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. Her memoir, Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, is about the turmoil of her early 40s. Over the course of two years, Janzen had a hysterectomy (which resulted in a year of her having to pee into a bag); her husband of 15 years left her for a man he met on gay.com; and she was in a serious car accident. Yes, this is a funny book.

Once her bones had started to heal from the accident, Janzen decided to go home to her parents in California. Her father was once the “Mennonite [Brethren] equivalent of the Pope.” I knew almost nothing about Mennonites before I read this book; I always thought of them as Amish but with buttons and cars. That isn’t entirely wrong (they do have buttons and cars), but there are other aspects of modern life that Mennonites shun, or at least shunned during Janzen’s childhood. That list includes drinking, dancing, gambling, card-playing and Ouija boards. The other holes in Janzen’s childhood experiences include an absence of Lite-Brights (I loved Lite-Bright!), Barbie’s Dream House, Bonnie Bell Lip-Smackers (I had quite a collection of those, including root beer flavor) and popular music.

A sub-set of the Anabaptists, the Amish spilt from the Mennonites in the late 17th century. The Mennonites, being unwelcome in the German-speaking countries, found a haven in what is now Ukraine, under the protection of Catherine the Great (German herself). Mennonites are non-violent to the point where the men receive exemptions from military service and are opposed to the death penalty. They also live in opposition to the consumer society. I have heard in the NYC subway fantastic a capella close-harmony singing by Mennonites; they were handing out CDs. I took one, hoping that it was music, but it turned out to be sermons. When Jantzen describes her difficulties with the Mennonites, they are identical to mine with the Catholics: no female clergy (although she implies this may be changing); no abortion (or as she puts it, “Judge the mother, love the baby”); no homosexuality; and the “traditionally narrow definition of salvation.”

The book is not just about the Mennonites, of course. It’s about confronting yourself and your past; it’s about facing the reality of getting divorced in your 40s. There are many adventures ahead of you, no doubt, but given age and a hysterectomy, having children is not among them. Jantzen does not shirk facing the truths in her marriage (like the fact that she knew that her ex-husband had relationships with men before they met), either. But for all of that, there is something ultimately joyful about Jantzen’s book and her journey.

For more about Janzen and her book, there’s a q. and a. with her at www.time.com; and a review in the New York Times Book Review this week: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/08/books/review/Christensen-t.html?ref=review

Disclaimer: A few weeks ago, someone from Henry Holt approached me about reviewing Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. I said sure, and received my review copy.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Open Source

This December, I am going to participate in Open Source Gallery's Soup Kitchen. I wanted to last year, but with surgery, a new puppy and Christmas, it just didn't happen. I'll be doling out homemade soup (watercress, I think) on Thursday, December 3rd between 5 and 7, until the soup runs out.
One of the monologues from my play "Let Nothing You Dismay" is set in a soup kitchen, and that will be read as well (by an enterprising actress, I hope, and if not, me). It is loosely based on a true story- the Black Widow murders that took place in and around Vienna in the last 20 years of the 20th century.
Open Source is run by Gary Baldwin and Monika Wuhrer in Brooklyn on 17th Street, near Fifth Avenue. More information to come. The link to their website is above.

The Early 1950s

I am nearly done with the current phase of my research for a new musical that I'm writing the book for. This has involved skimming back issues of the New Yorker, via The Complete New Yorker on cds. The magazine is in some ways remarkably similar to how it is now, and in other ways, not so much.
In the 50s, the shopping feature (On the Avenue) was much more common. They also had semi-regular columns about horse-racing, boxing, and tennis (even court tennis). There were two or three pieces of fiction in every issue. (And, yes, S.J. Perelman is still funny!) Douglas Watt, who died recently, was the music critic.
I also discovered a wonderful feature writer named Joseph Wechsberg. A native of the Czech part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Wechsberg served in World War II. He mainly writes about that part of the world- Berlin after the partition, the German-Czech border after 1948, a ride on the Orient Express- but also wrote a wonderful "Letter from Lebanon." Wechsberg died in Vienna in 1983. His website (www.josephwechsberg.com) is mostly in German, but there are some of his magazine and newspaper articles for English-language publications. Wechsberg was one of those feature writers (as was the recently deceased Nan Robertson for the New York Times) who while not at all chummy, really opens a window onto a different world for his readers. You feel like you're there with him, and it's a fascinating place to be.

Our Man in Havana

Last night I finally got a chance to see Our Man in Havana. I've never seen the whole thing, only clips (mostly of Noel Coward). It was great. Carol Reed produced and directed, and Graham Greene wrote the screenplay. The cast includes Alec Guinness (I have never sen him be bad- though his Fagin is dicey, albeit plenty scary), Burl Ives as a German expatriate doctor, Ralph Richardson, Noel Coward, Maureen O'Hara and Ernie Kovacs, as a scary police official. It's a funny (I never think of Graham Greene as funny), creepy Cold War spy story. Really wonderful.
So I started checking out imdb.com about the movie and Carol Reed (I've seen The Third Man so many times I think I know every word). It seems that Carol Reed was one of six (!) illegitimate children sired by Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (thought to be the best actor-manager of his day) with Beatrice Mae Pinney. Beerbohm Tree had two families, and moved back and forth between them. Those wacky Edwardians- who knew?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Tiger Lillies

My friend Cheryl Davis took me to see The Tiger Lillies concert at St. Ann's Warehouse last night. I was very familiar with "Shockheaded Peter" (I saw it at the Little Schubert, have the CD and have foisted the CD among others), but not their other work. The Tiger Lillies consists of Martyn Jacques, Adrian Huge (best percussionist I've ever seen) and Adrian Stout (who plays the bass, saw and Therimin!).
Their non-Shockheaded Peter songs are certainly related to it; in retrospect, Shockheaded Peter was the perfect vehicle for them. Their big themes and images are death (hanging, drowning), violence (particularly among criminals), and the sea and sailors (none of their sailors want to be at sea). Several of the songs are set in Marseilles.
Martyn Jacques is a truly gifted lyricist. He uses very few words to conjure up entire worlds. The songs sound very influenced by Berlin cabaret (not Viennese songs, which are much sweeter); certainly Kurt Weill but other German composers as well.
They were generous with encores, and wound up with one of my favorites, "Fidgety Phil." St. Ann's was packed.
Photo by Joshua Valocchi.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Fine Balance

My friend James was completing one of those lists on Facebook a month ago. One of his favorite books on the list was A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I finished it last week. It's really wonderful. If there is a modern Indian writer who resembles Dickens, it is Mistry. It's the story of India under Indira Ghandi, told through the eyes of four main characters: Dina Dalal, widowed at a young age; Ishvar and Om, untouchables trying to eke out a life in the big city; and Maneck, Dalal's college-aged boarder. It was so good it gave me insomnia.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bad Advice

I am fond of Judy McGuire's blog, Bad Advice. But my favorite of her postings is from August 21st of this year "Quit Hounding Me, You Shrimpy Little Jerk' (link above). The deluge of Bloomberg campaign mail is truly annoying, and perhaps Ms. McGuire's captioned photo says it best: I could feed five million hungry kids, but instead I'm sending you mail EVERY DAY."
Give the options in the mayoral race this year, I could consider Mr. Burns.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The 39 Steps

My friend Suzanne was in town this week, and on Wednesday night we saw The 39 Steps. It was absolutely delightful. Maria Aitken's direction of Patrick Barlow's adaptation of John Buchan's novel was fantastic. Sean Mahon plays Richard Hannay, Jill Paice plays the three women (Annabella Schmidt, Pamela and Margaret, and Jeffrey Kuhn and Arnie Burton play (brilliantly) everyone else. It is a relentlessly inventive and theatrical production- it never rests for a second. Despite the fact that I got around taking it myself, I wished that I was teaching a theatre history class so that I could show students how many traditions the director has pulled business from. My personal favorite moment was the shadow puppet chase scene, which features Hitchcock himself, and Sean Mahon's character riding the Loch Ness monster! Photos from the official website (link above) by Joan Marcus.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Estrogenius- Week One

Last week, I saw Week One (now closed) of Estrogenius at Manhatan Theatre Source. The range of plays, as always, interested me. I have seen other years of Estrogenius because my friend Cheryl Davis has had pieces in it several times. This year is its tenth anniversary.
The first play, Roar of the Crowd by Suzanne Lamberg, was very clever. It withheld just enough information to make its punch line pay off. It also reminded me of the endless arguments I've been in over what constitutes a ten-minute play versus a skit. This seemed pretty skit-like to me. Bette Siler's The Gift of the Maggie's is a take on O.Henry's The Gift of the Magi, but the adaptation does not match up on some pretty basic points of the original. It was certainly not a skit; it wasn't my brand of humor, but the audience laughed a lot. Junk Mail by Lynn Snyder was all over the place as a play, yet not clean enough to be a skit, but Anita Gonzalez's direction and the committed acting of Alana Jackler and Stephan Alan Wilson made it work. The last piece of the evening was Daniel Damiano's Enlightenment of Mrs. Cartwell, set during the Regency in Hyde Park. Conjures up Georgette Heyer novels, doesn't it? The plot of the play is Mrs. Cartwell overheard another woman say she had a big butt. Hilarity ensues.
My favorite, not surprisingly, was Elaine Romero's Revolutions. A play with genuine, deep emotion! That moved the audience! Set somewhere other than the contemporary US! I did wonder if it might be a longer play, since there's so much good stuff in it. I hesitate to give a complete plot summary (should you ever see it, I don't want to blow the ending), but it's about Pilar, a woman in a Latin American country, who goes to the General, looking for her missing son.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Last Emperor

I have been haunted for the past few years by a story that was in the Times Metro section (you know, back when there Was a Metro section) about Ertugrul Osman, who was the last remaining grandson of the final Ottoman Emperor. My knowledge of the Ottoman Empire comes from a Serb friend (who's a fantastic costume designer) Marija Djordevic; romance novels that feature harems; and Orham Pamuk's "Istanbul."
But Mr. Osman lived most of his life in our world; he and his wife lived in a walk-up on Lexington in the East 70s. He remembered playing in the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul as a child. Ataturk forced his family to leave Turkey in 1924. The photo is of His Imperial Highness Prince Osman and his second wife, Princess Zeynep (she's actually an Afghan princess as well). Mr. Osman died on a trip to Istanbul last Wednesday. He was 97 years old. What things he must have seen!
There's a link to the Times obituary above; the photo credit is Fred R. Conrad, for the Times.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Strangers on a Train

Last night for the first time I saw "Strangers on a Train." I've seen a lot of Hitchcock, but not that one. It's truly wonderful. Based on Patricia Highsmith's first novel (which she wrote at Yaddo), the adaptation was by Whitfield Cook and the screenplay by Raymond Chandler (yea!) and Czenzi Ormonde. Highsmith wrote the Ripley novels later, but you can see the antecedents in this film, despite the changes the writers and Hitchcock made to the nivel.
The two leads are Farley Granger and Robert Walker. I've seen Robert Walker in "The Clock" and "Til the Clouds Roll By." Neither of them prepared me for this. He is absolutely amazing. He really seems like a psychopath you'd meet in real life; not some thriller schlock version of one. Unfortunately, "Strangers on a Train" was his second-to-last film.
Hitchcock's daughter Patricia plays a supporting role, the ingenue's murder-obsessed, bespectacled sister.
Photo credits: Wikipedia.

More Art

Tom's show opened on Monday. The film makers who were shooting when we were working last Thursday have their piece up on YouTube- link above.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

God Doesn't Like Ugly

I have been to St. Paul the Apostle Church (the Catholic Church next to Fordham's Lincoln Center campus) once about ten years ago, to see an early music concert. It's a big church, and Stanford White is responsible for some of the interior decoration (at least the Lady Altar, from what I could tell). The church has an outreach program for visual artists, which includes art exhibitions in the church itself, on various religious themes. This year's theme is God Doesn't Like Ugly, and my boyfriend Tom Bovo has six photographs in the show.
On Thursday night we went to St. Paul's to hang Tom's photographs, and see what the other artists were doing. There was painting, sculpture and photos all over the church. We also got a chance to talk to the priest who organized the show, who seemed like an interesting guy to me. He's a priest and an artist, and his job is reaching out to other artists.
There is art all over the church; Tom's photographs hang beneath the last six Stations of the Cross, and they do each seem connected to each Station.
The show opens on Monday, and the hours are Monday through Friday, 7:30-6:00; Saturday 8:30-6:30; and Sunday 7:30-6:00, through October 29th. The opening reception (and the caterer gets high marks) is Wednesday, October 1st, 7:00-9:00. To get to St. Paul's, take the 1 train to 65th street, and walk to 60th and Columbus Avenue. The link above is to Tom's website, and these are three of the six prints he's exhibiting.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


I have had nothing but good questions and good rehearsal reports back from Kristen Kos, the director of the reading of my play Geography In Charleston, South Carolina on Saturday. A link to an article from Charleston City Paper about the reading series is above. The reading part of the Greater Park Circle Play Fest at South of Broadway on Saturday at 6PM. My friend Elaine Romero was there for the reading of her play "Like Heaven" last Saturday, and had only good things to say.
The play is about a brother and sister, Katinka and Antal Medve, who escape from post-revolutionary Hungary and settle in New York City. It takes place in the course of the Monday after Easter, 1957.
You might think this is a strange subject for a play from a simple German girl from Cleveland, but there were actually a lot of Hungarians who'd left in 1956 living in Cleveland when I was growing up there. I was also enough to have a wonderful friend, the late, great photographer Sandor Acs, who told me many stories about growing up in Budapest during World War II, and what the revolution was like. His stories and others are the basis of the play. I'm only sorry he didn't live to see it.
Geography should run around 80 minutes, so it's not too late for dinner afterwards.
The two photographs above are from aworldtowin.net and britannica.com.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

King Leopold's Ghost

I have a friend who's Belgian, and when I went to visit her in August she lent me her copy of "King Leopold's Ghost" by Adam Hochschild. I know a very little about the Congo- it was a Belgian colony, horrible death toll, and Patrice Lamumba. I read somewhere in the past six months that Roger Casement (the Irish patriot), Kafka's uncle and Joseph Conrad were all there at the same time. Not a whole lot. But I've been thinking about it since I saw "Ruined," Lynn Nottage's play about the civil wars there. It's over three hundred pages, and I was afraid it would be a bit of a slog. I couldn't put it down.
So what follows are the weird and/or shocking "good" parts.
Like some French and German colonies in Africa, the death toll in the Belgian Congo was high. Taking into account direct deaths, disease and a necessarily falling birthrate, Hochschild put it at half the population (and that's not the highest estimate, which is 13,000,000) which would be approximately ten million people. The death toll percentage in Namibia (then German South West Africa) of the Hereros people was worse. German troops had orders, not secret, to exterminate men, women and children.
King Leopold owned much of the Congo- it belonged to him and his shareholders, not the Belgians. Leopold's holdings were so complicated (dummy corporations, etc.) it took years to unravel them. He had a colony because he went colony-hunting for years, and finally settled on the Congo. I told my friend Cheryl this and she said, "Who goes colony-shopping?" For some years the main industry was exporting ivory, which eventually gave way to rubber. They were not originally rubber plantations, but sending workers (who were horribly treated- manacles, savage punishments, holding family members hostage) into the jungle to harvest rubber from wild-growing plants.
Sir Roger Casement served as the British consul in the Congo, and saw what was happening. He resigned from the foreign service in 1913, and went on, with E.D. Morel, to try to bring public attention to the people of Congo's plight. He was was concerned about the Irish people's plight (being Irish) and was executed for high treason (he negotiated with the Germans during World War I) in 1916.
Hochschild points out (and rightly so- I'd never though about it that way before) that much of the Allied propaganda that was generated about Belgium during World War I (cutting the hands and feet off Belgian children, widespread rape, etc.) was precisely what Belgians had done in the Congo ten years earlier. "Heart of Darkness" does not go overboard in its gore of heads impaled on garden stakes, baskets of severed limbs- if anything, Conrad muted it. Orchestrated by the CIA in 1961, Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lamumba was murdered by Belgian officers, and his body was chopped up and dissolved in acid, so there could be no martyr's grave. The Congolese point man for the murder was Joseph Mobutu, who robbed his country for more than 30 years of an estimated $4 billion dollars. Like King Leopold, he acquired large homes in Belgium and France, in addition to Spain, Portugal and Switzerland.
I highly recommend the book.

Mr. Bittman's Way Around Pie Crust

Last month I clipped a Mark Bittman recipe from the New York Times for getting around making pie crust (at which I am a miserable failure). It's called Stone Fruit Patchwork Bake; the link is above. It calls for five peaches, and a pound of cherries or berries. I was lucky enough to find good peaches (pretty late for that) had to buy a plastic cup of mixed berries- there was nothing else left at the vegetable stand. It was pretty easy, and tasted great! He suggests that if you use cherries, you leave the stones in, but I fear I break a tooth. The fruit base would be great as a sauce for ice cream or a pound cake.

Friday, September 4, 2009

South of Broadway

My friend Elaine Romero and I both have plays in South of Broadway's fall reading series, Greater South Circle Play Fest (link above). The theatre is located in Charleston, South Carolina. The readings are each Saturday evening at 6PM. Elaine's play, Like Heaven, is tomorrow night. My play, Geography, is next Saturday. Strangely enough, they are both plays we worked on when we were Playwrights-in-Residence at the Inge Festival. And I know that I heard of the Greater South Circle Play Festival via the Inge's artistic director, Peter Ellenstein. Peter is very diligent about passing along opportunities to Inge alumni. Not to mention the fact that he's a mensch.
Geography is my second play about the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. It's set in my old neighborhood, Yorkville, which used to be heavily Hungarian and German. The play takes place in Carl Schurz Park on John Finley Walk on the Monday after Easter in 1957. It's about a brother and sister from Budapest who are adjusting to New York City, or not. The play is as much about the relationship between these two siblings as it is about Cold War history. To me, sibling relationships are not quite like any other, however much we may take them for granted.
The reading is directed by Kristen Kos, featuring Frank Ponce as Brown and Katie Holland as Katinka.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Two Stories

Thing change in New York City, that's all there is to it. It's the nature of the beast. There were two articles in the Metro pages (wasn't there just a Metro section a few months ago?) of the paper of record that caught my eye this morning. The first was actually about Suffolk County (link above). I remember being quite excited 15 years ago to read that foxes had come back to Suffolk County. This summer, a young beaver arrived in Napeague. Whales were spotted off Montauk for the first time in ten years- humpbacks, and minkes. And dolphins, too. There are now so many wild turkeys in Suffolk that they're considering having a turkey shoot in November to cull some of the 3,000.
The not so good news is that yet another bastion of the West Side, Cafe des Artistes, is closing (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/31/nyregion/31artistes.html?ref=todayspaper). It seems that owners George Lang and his wife Jenifer Lang have been struggling, with the economy and rising labor costs, for some time. Instead of reopening at the end of their vacation on September 14th, they'll remain closed. I have been there many times (mostly the bar, I'll admit), and once to their restaurant in the City Park in Budapest (the best asparagus soup I've ever had). I own Mr. Lang's autobiography, Nobody Knows the Truffles I've Seen. He came to New York from Budapest after World War Ii. I wonder what will become of all the Howard Chandler Christy nudes on the walls?
Photo credit: Suzanne de Chillo, The New York Times

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Things That Change

So I have a big chunk of today that I can devote to the new libretto I'm working on. I'm in a deep research phase. At the moment, I'm working my way through New Yorker magazine issues of 1950, and when I was eating lunch just now, reading a Letter from Washington about Joe McCarthy. In the midst of it was a full page ad for the 1950 George Foster Peabody Radio Award (do they give radio awards anymore? Don't know.) "for outstanding entertainment in music has been won by WQXR ... no station anywhere has devoted more time or more intelligent presentation to good music than has WQXR."
Almost makes you want to weep, doesn't it? I wish WNYC the best of luck with their acquisition, but it will be a hard row to hoe. I'll be amazed if they can raise enough money in this economy to keep it an all-classical music format. Guess I'd better start skimming i-tunes.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Foster Care

I recently got an email from North Shore Animal League, the nearest big no-kill shelter to where I live. They are rescuing pups from a puppy mill on August 24, and are looking for homes where they can foster these poor neglected little guys. A link to their foster program is above.
If you can't foster a dog, they're also looking for towels, wash cloths, bones and toys, and we bet they'll take a check, too!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

My Trip

Last weekend, I went to Washington to visit friends. I also worked in some museum time. I managed to get to the National History Museum and the Portrait Collection, both part of the Smithsonian. I hadn't been to the History Museum in many years. There, I saw a George Washington Statue depicting him (I think) as Cincinnatus; Julia Child's kitchen; the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz; Sylvester Stallone's and Muhammed Ali's boxing gloves; Kermit the Frog; and Carol Channing's dress from the restaurant scene in Hello, Dolly! There was also a fine stuffed buffalo. I skipped the First Lady dresses; the line was too long.
The Portrait Gallery was mercifully quiet, and contained a lot of Presidential portraits, but also Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Churchill and John Rutledge.
On Sunday, I went to The Phillips Collection which was wonderful. The Rothkos are remarkable, and I loved the small Goya they have.