Saturday, September 25, 2010

Dorothy Gale

I wish that I could tell you that I haven't been blogging lately because of some major, life-changing event. The truth has to do with the weather and Hassidem. I grew up in the midwest, I lived in Kansas and I've seen twisters. But I'd never actually been in a tornado until last Thursday. My most immediate concern was my pup (the thunder made him crazy). So there are high winds, the view out of my living room window looks remarkably like the 1939 movie, but I hear dripping water. When the tornado has passed, I see at least six leaks in my kitchen, and water spewing out of the bathroom light fixture.
But my landlord is Hassidic, so nothing can be repaired on Yom Kippur. Whereon, the ceiling drywall collapses. And the handy-persons, best referred to as the Three Stooges, replace the drywall on Monday, and the water streams from the roof. Everything in the kitchen got zapped by the drywall or by the paint-sanding, even everything in the drawers. The Stooges can't work during Sukkoth. I pray the work can be done before Simchat Torah.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I've read plenty of Oliver Sacks, both his books and articles in The New Yorker. I saw Peter Brooks' theatre piece based on "The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat"; I've even seen Sacks himself, at the French Roast on the Upper West Side.
But his latest New Yorker article ( A Neurologist's Notebook: Face-Blind- The Perils of Prosopagnosia) struck me in a different way. It's about people who have a difficult time recognizing faces; from those who have difficulty recognizing them out of context, to those who can't recognize family members or every day landmarks. In extreme cases, this behavior manifests itself as brain lesions. Sacks outs himself as having a lesser but still significant form of it, developmental (or congenital) prosopagnosia. The rumors that swirled around Sacks for years because of his behavior in public (he has Aspergers, he has social anxiety, etc.) are not true. It's the difficulty he has in processing visual information (something the rest of us take for granted) that makes him appear to have these problems.
The further Sacks delved into the variations of face-blind-ness (it has its flip side: Sacks believes his father had the opposite condition, that he was a "super recognizer), the more it seemed very familiar to me. I have always had problems recognizing people by their faces if they are out of their usual context; I remember this at least as far back as high school. I always ascribed that to poor memory or too much self-involvement on my part. It never happens with close friends or family, and it never happens if the setting is appropriate. But it's happened to me twice this summer, seeing people I work with in setting where I didn't expect them.
Last week, I read an interview with Edward Albee where he described how his characters take shape in his mind, and he mentioned that he can't see their faces. I got to think that while I'm writing, I can see the characters three-dimensionally, seeing them moving through space (either in an environment or on a stage), hear their voices and know their thoughts, I can never see their faces. They are a blurred-out gray, like a wash on newsprint.
The link above is to an abstract of Sacks' article.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Me, Myself and I

On Saturday, Tom and I went with a group of friends to see Edward Albee's Me, Myself and I (N.B. The title actually has an ampersand in it, but Blogger won't accept one with a Mac platform) at Playwrights Horizons. I did not see the 2008 production at the McCarter with Tyne Daly, but I certainly read about it. The show is still in previews, so I saw the playwright sitting alone, listening intently, and the director, Emily Mann, looking as if she was going to find the playwright at intermission. She looked very tired.
The play is about a mother (Elizabeth Ashley), and her twin sons OTTO (Zachary Booth) and otto (Preston Sadlier). Mother is attended by Dr. (the always engaging Brian Murray). OTTO has decided that otto no longer is his brother, that his mirror reflection is his true twin, and that it is time to break away from his family. Chaos, hilarity and the impossibility of communication between parent and child ensues. I will not reveal the last ten minutes of the play, but it is inspired, hilarious and true to everything that has come before. I cannot decide whether the first act feels slow because of the direction or the writing (it feels to me like it takes longer to get where we're going than it should). But the actors are very engaging; Elizabeth Ashley made me feel like I had played those scenes in my own life. Booth and Sadlier look very alike onstage (I couldn't tell them apart) and as rooted in the world of the play as Ashley and Murray are. I may have to go see it again.

The Cradle Will Rock

A friend of mine, Brian Henry, is in a staged reading of Marc Blitzstein's The Cradle Will Rock at Theatre 80 St. Marks. There were two performances last week, and additional ones are Tues. the 28th and Wed. the 29th. Tickets are available at
I have read about the iconic Broadway production (see graphic), which was part of the Federal Theatre Project. It never opened at the Maxine Elliott because it was shut down by the US government. Orson Welles, John Houseman and Marc Blitzstein rented another theatre, and let people attend at no cost. The actors were forbidden by Actors Equity to perform on stage, so they sang their roles from the house. Some of the actors were Howard Da Silva and Will Geer.
In the 1980s, I know that I saw the Acting Company's production of The Cradle Will Rock, but I honestly can't remember if I saw it in a theatre or on PBS as part of American Playhouse. I do remember Patti Lupone's performance as Moll, the prostitute.
In 1999, Tim Robbins directed a film called The Cradle Will Rock which is more about the controversy around the production than the musical itself. It was shot in New York with a wonderful group of theatre actors, including Bob Balaban, Victoria Clark, Greg Edelman, Barnard Hughes, Cherry Jones, Audra McDonald, Stephen Spinella, and Harris Yulin.
The musical (Opera? Operetta? It's hard to know what to call it) is rarely performed. It is something akin to one of Brecht's Lehrstueck (learning play), and it certainly makes use of Brecht's alienation effect. It is still very American in its setting and tone. And perhaps it is no accident that Blitzstein's greatest success was his translation of Brecht and Kurt Weill's Die Dreigroschen Oper. (Can you tell I just finished reading a book about Brecht?) But there are plays of Brecht's where in spite of the politics and the alienation effect and the spareness of the text that still move. the audience. Despite the fine performances I saw Thursday night (and Brian Henry was excellent as A Gent, Junior Mister and Gus Polock), Blitzstein doesn't have the same effect on me. But see it before it's gone.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Rest Is Noise

I always look forward to Alex Ross' music reviews in The New Yorker, and I just finished reading his survey of 20th century music, The Rest Is Noise. It is a very enjoyable read, particularly the first 300 pages, which deals with music up to the end of World War II. Ross' style makes the imparting of a great deal of information (some of which I knew, some of which I didn't) look effortless. Ross is particularly good at looking at connections between the arts (music and painting, music and literature), and how they feed off of each other.
He is pretty snarky about the work of Olivier Messiaen, which I found surprising. Ross neglects to mention two of my favorite contemporary composers, Adam Guettel and Aaron Jay Kernis, and leaves out the recently deceased Donald Erb, though he finds room for Marc Blitzstein (is he really that important?). Most surprising to me was his nearly total neglect of women composers (Ellen Taaffee Zwilich included), despite the fact he mentions women librettists.