Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Flick

It's appearing at one of those minimal Off-Broadway theaters in the Village, this production of Annie Baker's The Flick, which won last year's Pulitzer Prize for drama. There has been a new cast taking over from the originals who started this second New York production, but this play proved its worth over the long run: three hours and ten minutes, that is.

Some have compared the pacing, with pauses and empty stage set, to Pinter but it struck me as the opposite of Mamet and La Bute, the two contemporary playwrights who specialize in crackling, staccato dialogue. Baker takes her time in enabling you to grasp where her characters are coming from. 

The three principals (there's a fourth performer who plays two small parts in fine fashion, too) are representative of young people stuck in dead-end jobs in a society and milieu that deny any chance, it would seem, to escape into any kind of satisfying work. Instead, they soldier on in a movie house in Worcester, Mass., with outdated technology and few prospects.

Gradually the characters interact on deeper and deeper levels, though this process is characterized by misunderstanding and the immediate realization that nothing will turn out right. Overlaying this is the small talk and the banter of any workplace, especially one where there are those who are clearly heading toward a dead end and the others who are usually younger but retain the slim likelihood of escape, if not assured success.

Not many plays capture this scene effectively. One that I recall fondly was Arthur Miller's A Memory of Two Mondays, a marvelous chronicle of a young man spending a summer in an urban supply house, knowing that he will be leaving for college in the fall but that the others are there for their lifetimes.   I had jobs like this when I was a teenager, and felt I learned an incredible amount from my immersion into the working world.

Just as Miller did, Baker captures the sense of outsiderdom that the new hire has, yet he is there on a break from college, so his prospects remain far more exciting than those facing the experienced hands. Baker captures the subtleties as the three in this triangle feel each other out or expose themselves -- in the case of the two veterans -- to each other unsuccessfully from all sides.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Master Sculptor

On the way to see the major exhibit of Picasso's sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I wasn't sure as to how I would react. One reason my familiarity with Picasso's sculpture was limited is that almost none of the objects on display in this major exhibition have been shown in public previously.

But there was one Picasso sculptural work with which I was familiar. It is the massive concrete version of Sylvette that is located near New York University in New York's Greenwich Village. Eileen and I were surprised when we first saw this large work, not because we didn't like it, because we did, but because we had apparently met the woman who had been Picasso's model for the sculpture.

Years back, when we spent most of a year in Britain, Eileen worked with a colleague there who was married to a French woman. She had been recruited as a model for Picasso in her younger days, she said, and, her husband observed, had been known as Sylvie to her friends, one of whom was Picasso. Not too surprisingly, the master invited her to come away with him, which offer, she, as a fairly level-headed late teenager (he was then in his 60s), declined.

Perhaps as a result of that decision, her career as a model for him was curtailed. I have a print of his painting of her and today, we saw the original sculpture from which the massive  version at NYU was made. All in all, my reaction was similar to how I react to paintings, collages, sculptures, and other art that the man produced throughout his long life--the quality of all of it was incredibly high.

I'm adding nothing to the volumes of criticism that have been devoted to analyzing Picasso, probably the premier artist of the 20th century. Yet it continues to amaze me that he had so much creativity and so much imagination to anticipate in most instances ideas that others would have later, they possibly never realizing that he had done it first. He began the experimenting in cubism with Braque; while Braque never achieved the significance in his later work that he had when engaged in developing cubism, Picasso went on to several further periods of major productivity and so much of the work he produced is truly fantastic.

Seeing this at the Museum of Modern Art, where several of his major paintings hang and many exhibitions have profiled his various creative periods, I thought back to his magnum opus that was there on loan for years when we were growing up, the huge canvas Guernica--probably the ultimate antiwar statement. In those days no one ever thought it would return to Spain since that return was conditioned on Spain abandoning Franco's fascism and returning to a democratic government.

There was a small sculpture of a bull's head and horns on one wall that conjured up recollection of Georgia O'Keeffe's many paintings on this theme, many of which we had seen recently in Santa Fe. As always, though, it seemed to say that Picasso was invariably there before anyone else. And, moreover, it also struck up wonderful memories of what I still think was his finest and most piercing work: Guernica.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Noel Coward's Hay Fever

Noel Coward's 1925 play, Hay Fever, which he purportedly wrote in three days, drew us to the Olney Theater today to see it performed by a sterling cast and a fine production. It's early Coward (he was all of 25 or 26 when it opened) and is a country-house comedy where the residents are a "bohemian" family led by a not-quite-retired leading lady of the stage.  They are all prone to be "rude" in the English sense, which means that guests visit for a weekend at their peril.

My first reaction was that there weren't enough good lines exemplary of the wit that Coward infused into such perennials as Private Lives, or in my view, even better, was Design for Living, based on a vision Coward may have once had of living together with the Lunts--Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne--the doyens of the American theater in the 1920s and 30s. There were dead moments when pairs of characters exited the stage and it took a while for the next scene and its characters to get going.

Apparently, in his early days, Coward was delighted by his trips to New York and spent time at a country house inhabited by the leading actress Laurette Taylor and her playwright husband, who were the models for this cast.  Too few recall that Taylor, in her waning days on stage, produced a masterful characterization as the original mother, Amanda Wingfield, in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, when that classic premiered in 1945. 

Taylor's story is worth recalling because it was one for the books. She apparently overcame what had been years of alcoholism to record what was her greatest theatrical triumph. In Hay Fever, however, we see an eccentric actress trying to dominate her family and everyone else, producing nothing but conflict and distress for family and visitors.

Coward's being gay was never disclosed during his lifetime and his supreme archness and charm became legendary. The man was unstoppable from childhood in his love for performing (his autobiography was entitled A Talent to Amuse) which he carried on by putting on cabaret shows in which he sang his own classic songs in his late years. He staged patriotic morale-boosting shows in London in World War II and deserves to be remembered as an ornament of the theater.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Great Bert Williams

Two nights ago at the Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian, we saw a screening of a silent film from 1913 called Lime Kiln Field Day, starring Bert Williams.  Doesn't ring a bell? I'm not surprised, because Bert Williams may be one of the greatest figures of American show business, but sadly, we have few chances to see what all the shouting was about.

He was a black comedian who starred in The Ziegfeld Follies, wrote and performed many highly popular songs, and has been lauded as the greatest performer ever in vaudeville. I've heard him sing one of his most famous songs, Nobody, transferred at the National Portrait Gallery from cylinder recordings. He worked in blackface, which was virtually mandated for black comics around the turn of the century, right at the time--not right after the Civil War which we would otherwise assume until C. Vann Woodward exposed the real history--when Jim Crow reigned supreme in American race matters.

Lime Kiln Field Day was intended to run for about 35 minutes as a feature film produced at the Biograph Studios in the Bronx, where many famous silent pictures, such as Mack Sennett's comedies, were shot.  The Biograph vaults turned up the old film a few years ago and talented professionals at New York's Museum of Modern Art restored them and figured out who the players were, often relying on sheet music covers.

Bert Williams stars, and shows all his talents, many very subtle, in the film. He was a master of facial expressions, slowly reacting to action with a look perfectly responding to the cue. We have to figure out exactly what he and the other actors are saying and doing because this film was never edited for distribution, when titles would likely have been inserted. The ease with which you can figure the story out attests to the truth of that great line Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond uttered in Billy Wilder's marvelous tribute to the silents, Sunset Boulevard: "We had faces!"

The other actors, especially the female lead, Odessa Warren Gray, who later opened up a successful fashion and millinery store in Harlem, and Henry Troy, who plays Bert's rival for her hand, demonstrate their own excellence, too. The whole picture is highly sophisticated for its time, much more interested in characters than the great Mack Sennett comedies, but in many ways, reminiscent of the silent star who was most similar to Bert Williams in talent: Charlie Chaplin.

The tragedy of this picture's not being released was apparently caused by the release shortly after it was shot of Birth of a Nation, the D. W. Griffith epic that enshrined the Ku Klux Klan as heroic, and helped shaped American culture toward favoring the South as the Lost Cause, perpetuated, of course, in 1938, by the novel and movie, Gone With the Wind. We are finally beginning to rid ourselves of the accepted Southern version of the Civil War and Reconstruction, with the demise of the stars and bars and the recognition that the Civil War was indeed all about slavery. The reappearance of this silent movie should awaken us to the existence of the very strong theatrical tradition in the U.S. carried on by black performers and theatrical producers during those trying times.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Jesuits' Rabbi

When I moved to DC in 1979--after a few months living here in 1974-75--friends mentioned that a good option for High Holiday services was available at Georgetown University, where the school's Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Harold White, conducted services in Gaston Hall for large congregations that included both university students and broader community attendants.

We often attended back then, and it quickly became clear to me that Rabbi White was the rare clergyman whose sermons invariably left you with a lot to think about. I thought about this again when I read his obituary--he died Monday at 83--which recalled that he was Georgetown's first Jewish chaplain. The Washington Post obit noted that when he asked the Jesuits who hired him why they needed a Jewish chaplain as there were not many Jewish students on campus, they told him he was there for Christians as well. Georgetown, despite its Jesuit identity, wanted its students exposed to the several religions for which the university had established chaplaincies.I also heard that Rabbi White had been brought to Georgetown because the Jesuits wanted to have someone learned in theology with whom they could discuss the many topics that crossed religious boundaries. 

Aside from conducting good services with superb sermons, Rabbi White apparently also was a rare clergyman, especially when he started out, who looked at the positive side of interfaith marriages. He would perform them, observing that he found this offered a better likelihood that a Jewish partner would continue to identify with the faith. Having had the opportunity to hear many rabbis over the years, he stood out as the best rabbi in the pulpit I recall.

As in many universities, the combined holiday services used the longtime Conservative prayer book, edited by Rabbi Robert Gordis. In the never-united Jewish spectrum, this was the closest thing to a common denominator: too long for Reform, abbreviated in the Orthodox view. I always felt it provided the perfect basis for a brilliant rabbi, like Rabbi White, to use in relating his sermon to the service. Few of our newer prayer books--be they Conservative or Reform--possess the staying power of this well-edited and balanced one.

Rabbi White made you think. He did not preach about upholding rules or present tired arguments--I recall one rabbi who had but two sermons, on Israel and intermarriage: he was for one and against the other. That was just what Rabbi White wasn't. He had an unusual gift for taking everyday ethical challenges and forcing you to confront them with wisdom and imagination. For that ability alone, which he applied so well and for so long for so many, he will be remembered.

Sunday, August 30, 2015


Much to my surprise, Eileen suggested yesterday that we watch the Redskins v. Ravens exhibition preseason game on TV. She developed a Raven-fan interest when she was at Hopkins three autumns ago and was imbued with Baltimore Ravens enthusiasts all around her. I of course see plenty of that when I go to my office in Towson and back when I was in Upper Marlboro where one lawyer had her door filled with Ravens posters and stickers.

For someone who enjoys sports, I watch less than average numbers of pro football games. I like games where something major is at stake and all my loyalties in pro football have more or less faded. I abandoned the Giants years ago when they went bad for ages--following their brilliant choice of not hiring either of their two top assistants, Vince Lombardi or Tom Landry, as head coach. I loved the Raiders for their attitudes right through John Madden's time coaching them. And back when the local eleven was in contention, I was even caught up in the furor. Heck, my staff at the Court of Appeals asked to come in wearing Redskins regalia the day of the Super Bowl victory parade and of course, I agreed--and wore my own.

But for years the local eleven has been synonymous with moronic management and the Raiders had passed their time even when Al Davis was still alive. I've been drawn over the years to the Ravens because they had great defense with the touch of outlawry that the Raiders had. I've been lucky enough to attend games both in Oakland and Baltimore to see how fervent their fan bases are.

So last night I realized that as these were preseason games, they would have local commentators. The Redskins are carried by the local NBC outlet, with Joe Theisman as the play-by-play man and the Ravens were on a Baltimore ABC station I picked up on cable. I only recall that the ageless Stan White was the color man. We switched back and forth and it was like hearing two different games.

They would go nuts when their team made a good play and more or less ignore anything done by the opposing club. If an opposing player went down, it hardly merited mention. It all reminded me of the old days of local baseball announcers on radio especially--known as homers. Some great ones, like Vin Scully, still calling the Dodgers for the last century or so, remain real pros and don't give off the aura of home-team favoritism to any major degree.

But then there are true homers like the late Bob Prince of Pittsburgh. I'll always recall driving into Pittsburgh and trying to find KDKA, the famous station there that still carries the Pirates. Suddenly, I heard those tones blaring out of the car radio: "All right, our team is up." And that was Bob. Like Howard Cosell, he had started out as a lawyer. Once Howard had him on his short-lived show covering the world, Speaking of Everything, and in response to Howard's challenge that Bob was a homer, Bob just responded that he was no different from Howard's backing his team.

He meant the Mets and Howard went nuts: "Don't call them my team! I have totally disagreed with everything that team has done for the past blankety-blank years etc etc." But there were lots of announcers like Bob Prince. Johnny Most of the Celtics comes to mind. It was fun hearing that old home-time religion if only for a preseason game. Most homers get old really fast but for one night, it was a trip back into a different pre-ESPN sports world.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Knee High

I'm two weeks past having my right knee replaced. Still somewhat stiff and swollen but I'm walking, going up and down the stairs fairly easily, and doing a lot of exercises twice daily to make the whole thing work in the end. It seems only slightly crazy that my "good" knee, i.e., the one which I plan to replace two months from now, feels better than good, now. 

The experience, on the whole, has been highly positive. The surgeon and the physical therapists have been great, as have been the home health nurse and the caretaker-in-chief, Eileen. Spending five days more in rehab was on the whole worth it for the more intensive physical therapy.

Either I could go right home and people would come to my house with therapy and home health care. Or I could go into what is called rehab for some days or weeks. Rehab sounded like a good choice. It meant I would be taken to physical therapy twice a day, and given some occupational therapy as well. The rehab unit--the physical therapy part, that is, and although less needed for my particular surgery, the occupational therapy--was excellent and stretched my capacities as those needed to be. 

Apart from the therapy, however, I was in a nursing home. And that's just what the contract for services that I signed said it was. Ostensibly they have tried to combine the two functions, but when you leave the therapy rooms, you are in a nursing home. This means reduced levels of service from what you expect in a hospital and a reduced level of competence in basic skills.

Things that I know all too much about, like legal liability and corporate structuring, help make this so. Example: if you are in one of these units, and it is attached to a hospital, it may not have access to the medical specialists that the hospital has available. It is a separate structure, designed to keep costs down.

Because you might fall, for liability reasons it struck me that no one encourages you to begin learning to get around without a walker. The five nights I spent in rehab were worthwhile because I began to get into the specific routine of focused exercises. This was highly desirable, since our house has lots of steps, with not all vital functions on the same floor.  This is also why I was eligible for rehab. But after five nights in this unit, I began to see that the experience wasn't desirable for me psychologically.

So, yes, all appears to be working out for the best. This is also an experience that draws on what might not be my most outstanding virtue: patience. Yes, for this procedure to work, doing the exercises is critical, but results are cumulative and I have to keep reminding myself of that.