Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Great Society

The second in this series of plays about LBJ which began with All the Way is now playing in D.C. at the arena and is titled The Great Society. Saw the first play in New York with Bryan Cranston starring. This production has Jack Willis in the lead, and he played the leading role when Arena did All the Way.

The theme of this play is more downbeat. LBJ starts enacting his domestic program but is consumed by Vietnam. Willis is good--he played the bartender in Lynn Nottage's Sweat, in which he excelled. The play, though, does not excite me the way the first one did and it wasn't just Cranston, who is a superb actor.

These plays do convey political history and there are good parts for Martin Luther King and J. Edgar Hoover, especially. But to me, the major shortcoming, and not totally fatal because it was an entertaining evening, arises from the usual rule that sequels don't match originals. The playwright's method is the same, many of the players are the same even if I didn't see the Arena production of the first play.

What of course was fascinating was to see this play in Washington. The audience was older so many likely recalled Lyndon Johnson. I wonder how many younger people have much idea of what he was about. They are unlikely to have plowed through the four volumes (a fifth is forthcoming, we hope) by Robert Caro, now in his late 70s. 

Johnson made the Senate work. Until he let himself be undone by Vietnam, he also managed to get an amazing run of progressive legislation through Congress, at a time when he had to deal with reactionary Southern Democrats still controlling the committees in both houses. In the first play you were shown how he mastered the process. No one since has come close. It is worth remembering him and remembering what he did and what no one else could do, then or now.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Songs All Weekend

It was a grand night for singing. We had figured out how to get free tickets for a performance at the Kogod Cradle theater in the Arena Stage complex of Leonard Bernstein's Theatre Songs, which was...just wonderful. The show was put on by about 15 students in Catholic University's Music Theatre program. They could sing--tough stuff like "Glitter and Be Gay" from Candide, and dance--the male chorus doing "Gee, Officer Krupke" from West Side Story.

The show moved from number to number without any wasted time spent on a book and was smoothly executed as if it had been staged by George Abbott. The kids were more than all right. They also had lots of charm and were constantly in motion, or so it seemed. Many songs were not that familiar--from On the Town and Wonderful Town

All in all, a wonderful night out. Then on Sunday we enjoyed the cabaret put on by The IN Series at the Atlas. It was a marathon of Jerome Kern songs, only it also moved with some costuming and occasional dance steps. The performers were a few years older and used their get-ups to get into some of the songs.

The high point was the six straight numbers near the end of the second act from Showboat. Jarrod Lee even produced a very respectable and moving rendition of Ol' Man River. Short of Paul Robeson magically materializing onstage, it couldn't have been better. Suzanne Lane provided a nice presentation of Bill, the one song in the show that Kern threw in from his trunk, it having been written some years before with lyrics by P. G. Wodehouse.

Once again, the show moved well and they packed a whole lot of songs in. Kern was a half-generation older than the great generation of songwriters--the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, for starters. So soon after the turn of the century, he was doing "How'd You Like to Spoon With Me" and lots of marvelous tunes like "They Didn't Believe Me" and then clever stuff like "She Didn't Say Yes" from The Cat and the Fiddle.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Back to the stars

Over the weekend we took in the latest film in the Star Wars saga: The Last Jedi. I'm not a Star Wars fanatic--I did see the first three, missed the next three, and went to the last full movie a year or so ago, The Force Returns. I don't think any of the sequels, prequels, whatever, matched the original. For one thing, Alec Guinness only appeared in the first and Harrison Ford was a new face, at least to me, in that one.

This time, we get to say good-bye to Carrie Fisher, who eventually became the strongest performer in the troupe; when she started, it struck me that she was lucky to get the part. To me, the new leading players are fine but they could be in any adventure picture. And there's not enough cleverness in the writing to make this picture stand out. Lots of plot, lots of action, and what appeared to be a search for deeper meaning that remained unresolved.

Later, I watched the first few episodes of the second season of The Crown, on Netflix. There's some good acting here--last year's series was definitely high-quality. But I realized what the problem will be: the royals are not inherently interesting. Especially the Queen and Philip. Princess Margaret was an attention-getter because of her much more lively--and in many ways, sad--life. 

And I see that later in this series, they will bring back the Duke of Windsor, who commands interest because his abdication turned out to be one of the best things that happened to the Brits. He barely escaped being officially labelled a collaborator in World War II. He managed to outlive his dutiful brother, George VI, who earnestly took on the responsibility he never expected to have, and performed mightily.

There's also a drop-off on the political side. The series did confirm my view that Winston Churchill deserves great respect for the five-plus years of his wartime leadership, which was magnificent. But the series shows him in his last years as Prime Minister in the early 50s, when he was losing it and didn't have a war to fight nor an empire to defend. The finest decision by the British electorate was in 1945 when they decided that Winston was not the man to lead them in peacetime.

The speedy demise of the great Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, when he finally became Prime Minister, was well presented, but I'm already wondering about the portrayal of Harold (Supermac) MacMillan, who turned out to be shrewd enough to stay in power for more than seven years. Claire Foy does a fine job as the young Elizabeth II--even in these early years as queen, she already demonstrates that she may be the only one of the royals with any common sense.

Monday, December 25, 2017

'Darkest Hour" and 'The Post'

These are two excellent pictures. Darkest Hour shows Churchill at his best: 1940-45 was his time, a rather brief but totally overwhelming part of a long life. Before he had been an itinerant journalist, writer, politician, strategist of the disastrous Gallipoli invasion, and generally unappreciated Member of Parliament; in May 1945, when Britain finally held an election following V-E Day, he and the Tories were voted out as the populace preferred Labour in peacetime.

But during those first days in office, and for the next years, Churchill was the man they needed and he delivered. This movie is especially good at pointing out the crew of losers and appeasers who had dominated and still dominated the Conservative Party despite their yielding to his designation by King George VI. Neville Chamberlain had been ousted but was by no means finished--that came with his death within six months--and Viscount Halifax was a dangerous rival who wanted peace at any price and is seen in the film as going to any length to undermine Churchill and give in to Germany.

Gary Oldman is marvelous as Churchill as is Kristin Scott Thomas, as his wife, Clementine, the one person who could speak bluntly and effectively to him. Ronald Pickup, whom I saw on stage in a visiting Royal Shakespeare Company troupe in Brooklyn ages ago as both Richard II and Bolingbroke--he exchanged roles in alternate performances--was fine as Chamberlain and Stephen Dillane is appropriately slimy as Halifax.

We've had two fine performances as Churchill, with John Lithgow's in the first year of The Crown on Netflix. Darkest Hour, though, is set at the high point of Churchill's career--the low point for Britain--and the pressures he was under unyielding. He was really beginning to fade when he returned as prime minister in 1951 when Lithgow's role starts. And it was far more satisfying on screen than Dunkirk, which seemed to take the view that pictures can tell the whole story, as there was precious little dialogue.

The Post is well-done as well. Hanks and Streep shine as Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham. Their personalities alone justify the moviemakers deciding to focus on The Washington Post rather than The New York Times, which ran the first story on the Pentagon Papers, and when enjoined, saw the Post pick up and run with the story which Daniel Ellsberg had then provided, after the Post had tracked him down.

Today's Times had a column by Jim Ruttenberg that tried to make the case that the movie should have been about the Times. It's not just that the Post provided a better story: Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham were both more sympathetic and more interesting than Abe Rosenthal. Graham knew she was unprepared in many ways to make the biggest decision of her career and Bradlee was a natural showman. Even people who respected Rosenthal's ability regarded him as an obnoxious individual.

The movie, however, is excellent in its depiction of the whole scene and story, including its presentation of the Supreme Court scene, a pet peeve of mine, which was almost completely accurate. For some reason, Hollywood is unable to re-create the Supreme Courtroom accurately, although far more challenging sets have been built. Both movies tell important stories that cry out to be seen and remembered.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

More on the Middle East

In the next few days we covered a lot of ground. Many, many ruins--there are an amazing number of national parks. Gamla, Tel Dan, Zippori, Beit Shearim--all either with amazing outlooks or significant ruins, including burial sites. Climbed the city on the hill, Safed (Tsfad), and managed there to see the Museum of Hungarian Jewry, since my maternal grandfather's family came from what was then Hungary (and now is Eastern Slovakia).

Tsfad is also an art center, with one street in particular lined with galleries filled with objects worth a look as well as plenty of opportunities to go turisto. It of course is best known as the centuries-old center of those who studied the Kabbalah. Seeing all the natural high spots and the excavated crusaders' castle at Akko (Acre), the Roman-era port at Caesarea, the steep incline of Haifa, and the view of the Sea of Galilee from the Golan Heights emphasized how much there is in addition to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

The Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv provides one of the most moving and amazing experiences I can recall. They were the advance guard of the Haganah that became the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and the museum moves you through the training of one group of young people and shows the conflicts in the years immediately preceding the War of Independence in 1948.

I spent some time at the genealogy section of the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv, and found some entries that will be useful in my updating a family tree that was last fully worked up about twenty-two years ago. These included a great-aunt of my mother's, hitherto not known (at least to the previous preparers of the tree), for whom my mother may well have been named.

We also visited two of my second cousins, sisters who have lived in Israel for decades, one from before World War II and one some years after, coming from England. Some of their families were there, too, including a teacher of Hebrew and an El Al account manager, formerly a flight attendant. My cousin's late husband had been in the IDF and had had a career that was right out of Exodus, the novel.

Much about the trip was unexpected, including the cuisine. Israel salad--tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, chopped as in shopska in the Balkans and absolutely delightful--was often served for breakfast or at lunch at an outdoor cafe, accompanied by several small dishes, sometimes including falafel and schwarmer. There are now plenty of top-class restaurants, especially in Tel Aviv, but a fish restaurant there on the harbor was all that it should be.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Middle East--Part I

What surprised me most about Israel were the stones. Everywhere there are rocks, mostly big ones. Not just in Jerusalem, where you stare at the huge multi-ton stones that form the remains of the Western Wall.

It brought me back to grade school, when at assembly, they often read Biblical selections that would offend neither Christian nor Jew (there weren’t any other religions present back then.) So either we read a psalm or the part from Ecclesiastes about “A time for war and a time for peace…” Remember the line “A time to gather stones together and a time to cast away stones”? Now I finally know what that meant in a place where there are stones all over the place, and not just around ruins, of which there are a huge number.

We started out in Jordan, where we figured it made sense not to mention “the other place,” where we were heading in a day or two on the Royal Jordanian flight from Amman. Eileen was on a work assignment training people and meeting with officials and I turned up in time for the drive to Petra. In case you hadn’t heard, Petra is one of the more recently selected wonders of the world. It should have been one of the seven ancient wonders (of them, only the pyramids are still standing) but no one knew Petra existed since it was effectively “lost” for centuries.

It lives up to the build-up because you emerge from the Siq—the narrow entry canyon that gives you several kilometers of water systems and interesting markings to prepare you for the sight of the Treasury, the Greek-styled front carved into the red rock face of the mountain. There are other marvelous sights even if you don’t climb up torturous paths; and our runners and walkers should note that we walked the miles in and out of Petra without clambering aboard a horse, donkey, carriage, or camel, all of which were bidding for our custom.

We have squeezed a lot into eight days here in Israel. A day in West Jerusalem seeing the Israel Museum and Yad Vashem and a day in the Old City seeing the City of David, the Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Armenian Quarter, and the best falafel I’ve ever tasted from a stand near the Wall that should be named the Falafel King of the Kotel. And then we visited Eileen’s frum cousin and her daughter (who has nine children) in a seriously observant section of the city and amazingly, we emerged in good humor.

Stopped off in Be’ersheva to catch up with Grace Erdmann, teaching English in an elementary school, who gave us yet another view of life in the Holy Land. Then on to Masada—don’t even ask if we took the cable car, because we did—which is a spectacular sight along with the sadly diminished Dead Sea, victim of the country’s vicious version of privatization. Couldn’t give away the secret of the En Gedi synagogue’s warning from 2000 years ago, although it likely was the perfume they made to mask the smell of the dead.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Arena's Pajama Game

A lecturer on Broadway musicals recently observed that Broadway wasn't sure about The Pajama Game when the original production was coming to town in 1954. No one could recall a musical focused on labor relations. With songs including "Hey There," "Hernando's Hideaway," and "There Once Was a Man," the show ran for more than two years and has been revived over the years.

Last night at D.C.'s Arena Stage, the production was good, with strong voices and excellent dancers. Minor complaint for me was the high volume of the obvious amplification: not only was it annoying but it shows that in the years since the musical stage has introduced amplification, there now is no shame whatsoever in making it obvious. The orchestra, mostly hidden under the stage-in-the-round, was too loud as well.

But more important, does the show hold up? It was based on a novel by Richard Bissell called 7 1/2 Cents, and prepared for Broadway by some real pros--George Abbott and Jerome Robbins directing, Bob Fosse was choreographer, John Raitt--fresh from Carousel--was the male lead, paired with the Broadway regular, Janis Paige, and the veteran trouper Eddie Foy Jr. in the "older man" role of the time-study guy, Hines, who even gets to tap dance. Among the dance corps were the young Peter Gennaro and yes, Shirley MacLaine.

The show was stolen, however, by the great dancer Carol Haney, and seeing how her part was nicely played last night by Nancy Anderson, I can see how the part lends itself to over-the-top performances. As an added lagniappe, Donna McKechnie, the original Cassie on Broadway in A Chorus Line, turned in a fine showing in a supporting dramatic role.

But does the show hold up? Mostly. The show is not at all a propaganda vehicle for the labor movement, much as that movement might need one now. There are some outdated lines and characterizations but on the whole, the show is still fun and modestly meaningful. There are more than the usual improbabilities in some of the romantic development, but again, you get more than two hours (2 1/2 hours running time) of good singing and dancing, and yes, even a soupcon of acting.