Archive for the ‘Lively Arts’ Category

Gotham Diary:
30 September 2011

Friday, September 30th, 2011

There was no babysitting last night — Megan was down with a viral sore throat that there was nothing for but to suffer through — but I did make it to the Kitano Bar to hear Chip White Quartet’s second set. At a time when, lately, I’d be getting ready for bed, I was getting dressed instead, and sharply, too, mindful that the Kitano is in a Japanese hotel.

Before the musicians assembled, I saw the “Zildjian” marque on the back of Chip’s largest cymbal, and I remembered watching a clip about the company, which was founded by an Armenian alchemist in Istanbul in 1623, to serve the sultan’s court, and which now, somewhat more prosaically, supplies the greats of rock and pop from a factory in Massachusetts. I’m not a big fan of cymbals (except when Mozart goes for a “Turkish” effect, in which case I giggle like an unreconstructed toddler), but knowing something about the Zildjians — or, better, knowing that I had once upon a time known something about them — focused my attention on how Chip played them. What had hitherto seemed the random banging on the graduated discs now revealed rhythms and patterns that it was a pleasure to follow. Chip’s jazz is not only inspired by the classics (Parker, Gillespie, Rollins, Jackson) but an embodiment of it as well; it’s Chip’s leading from the drums that makes for a bit of difference. I especially liked his more ruminative pieces, “The Other Side of the Rainbow With Sybil” and “Rain.”

The Kitano is a great live jazz room, and I hope to go back at least a few times a year. It’s a cosy little corner of a space, and there’s a no-talking rule that didn’t need to be enforced last night. As the MC put it, “silent” is an anagram of “listen.” The frites are great, too.


Jonathan Levine’s 50/50 is a very rare treat: a charming and delightful movie about cancer. It is charming and delightful because the actor playing the young victim of a rare sarcoma, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, projects a persona that it is impossible not to care about. It is also not so much about him as about the people in his world, all of whom have a hard time coming to grips with his very bad luck. In a profound if cinematic way, 50/50 refutes the proposition that we all die alone: facing possible death during a delicate surgery, Adam Lerner (Mr Gordon-Levitt) seems aware that anaesthesia will assure that only he will miss the news of his death. Death is something that happens to all of us, more or less repeatedly, until at last it ceases to happen, along with everything else. At no point does the movie plump for hospital drama; for the most taken up with Adam’s course of chemotherapy, 50/50 underlines cancer’s spooky but debilitating uneventfulness. And, by the way, 50/50 is actually very funny. But do bring a hankie.

Out & About:
Svelte Lake
Thursday, 30 June 2011

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

There are lots of things that I haven’t done, but one thing that I can check off that list is Swan Lake. I saw the ballet for the first time last night. I had such a perfectly good time that I’m rather glad that it wasn’t a great one. I get to save seeing a great performance of Swan Lake for another time. 

Of course I know the score just about by heart. I’ve seen the ballet on video, not to mention in countless movie clips ranging from Far From Heaven and The Deep End to Poupées russes. (I’ve just ordered a DVD of the Fonteyn-Nureyev performance that I used to own on LaserDisc). More to the point, I’ve seen Darren Aronofsky’s deconstruction/reconstruction, in Black Swan, which I’ll come back to later. But it was Jennifer Homans’s Apollo’s Angels that convinced me that I ought to see the ballet on stage as soon as possible. That meant the end-of-season American Ballet Theatre production. 

Having seen ABT’s Raymonda a few years ago, and read a review or two of ABT productions down through the ages, I knew where to expect last night’s performance to fall short. The sets and, to a lesser extent, the costumes were showy but dramatically inconsequent, bordering on kitsch. (There is a perfectly dreadful maypole in the first act that shows off the company to embarrassing disadvantage. Also: any first-time visitor would be pardoned for inferring from the Queen Mother’s getup that there will be vampires.) And corps de ballet would be a concept with no visual onstage correlative. 

Perversely, the worst corps dancing was that of the swans. I don’t expect the robotics of Busby-Berkeley synchronization, but I believe, as Homans suggests, that the proper execution of the steps ought to produce a pleasing coordination of arms and legs. Nowhere is a lapse on this front more regrettable than in Swan Lake, where the swans are anything but decorative backdrop, willi-style, to the romance of a prince and an enchanted beauty. Times dance critic Alistair Macaulay writes that Odette’s “swan-maiden subjects become chorally wrapped up in this love story, and their involvement makes this ballet like no other. They share her hopes and fears; their destiny hangs on hers.” Indeed, unless the swans are as eloquently tragic as their queen, then the showpieces, such as the danse des cygnets and Odette’s thirty-two fouettés, take on the air of stunts. 

I knew from Macaulay’s review that the final act of Swan Lake would not astonish me. (Tchaikovsky’s amazing send-off, however, did, as it always does, and my eyes were flooded.) I had to ask, though, if a better production than Kevin McKenzie’s would have made much of a difference. Like the singers of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, the ABT corps seemed comprised of somewhat independent soloists. I’d almost rather do without. What I didn’t expect was the damp sparklessness of Marcelo Gomes’s dancing with Paloma Herrera. Strong and limber in solos, or even when engaged in mime, Mr Gomes demonstrated less than no interest in Ms Herrera, who, for her part, was as excellent as it is possible to be without being quite great. I don’t fault her; the atmosphere was not conducive to greatness. It’s entirely possible that she would have been great, doing exactly as she did, on a less fussy stage. 

The evening was far from disappointing, however, thanks to the svelte pace established by conductor David LaMarche. Notwithstanding the absence of romantic fire onstage, and compensating greatly for the sloppiness of the corps, the orchestra poured forth a current of generous accompaniment that supported the secondary soloists (who, after all, do a great deal of the dancing — the pas de trois in Act I and the national dances in Act III.) Here there was something like real elegance, with a connection among the dancers that corresponded to what could be heard from the pit. 

I haven’t watched The Black Swan lately, but I recall that the choreographer, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), says that a production of Swan Lake has to be great; otherwise, why bother? Indeed, it was my doubt that Swan Lake could be great that led me to avoid it in the days of my ignorant youth. I thought that it must be all fustian and feathers (and whatever complaints I’ve made about ABT’s version, it’s certainly much, much better than that). Black Swan assured me that Swan Lake could be great, and it showed a way of making it great, by working the seam of madness that is implicit from the very beginning of Tchaikovsky’s score.

One girl is enchanted and spends her days as a swan. Another is enchanted and spends her days as a ballerina. Black Swan suggests not only that there isn’t much difference between these fates — thus making Swan Lake a meditation on the art of ballet at its most demanding — but that either enchantment is likely to lead to or require madness, making healthy everyday affections impossible. (There’s probably something unhappy about Prince Siegfried, too, or he would have found satisfaction at his mother’s court. This is Matthew Bourne’s insight.) Is it possible to find happiness in disciplined transcendance? Plumping for an answer one way or the other is a mistake; it’s enough for a work of art to let the tension vibrate. I expect that this is exactly what Black Swan will inspire choreographers to do with Swan Lake. Now that I’ve seen a respectable performance of the old interpretation, I’m ready for the next step. 

Weekend Diary:
Saturday, 18 June 2011

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

What I’d very much like to know is how many New Yorkers bought tickets to one of the Royal Danish Ballet’s six performances here this week because Jennifer Homans’s chapter about August Bournonville, in her magisterial but deliciously readable history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels, inspired them to do so. It can’t have been just me.

Kathleen liked the evening’s offerings very much, although when she told me that the company’s disciplined attention to detail reminded her of the title character in Coppélia (a mechanical doll), I had to quibble. I saw some of the most fluid, “natural” dancing ever. It was as though the members of the RDB spend their lives offstage as well as on- leaping effortlesly into the ether and floating across the room on point.

What’s specatacular about the Royal Danish Ballet is the complete absence of the spectacular. The dancing is very fine, and often intoxicating, but it is never showy. The reason why I think there were other Homans readers in the audience is that it would otherwise be suspicious for New Yorkers so vociferously to applaud understatement. This was a crowd that had a lot more in common with chamber music aficionados than with the opera crowd.

We saw La Sylphide, which I must confess to having confused, inattentively, with Les Sylphides (until Jennifer Homans straightened me out), and Act III of Napoli. or, as it is called in the program, Napoli, Act III. I suppose that the RDB must mount complete performances of August Bournonville’s Napoli ever now and then, out of professional courtesy, but most serious balletomanes will go to their graves without seeing more of this work than its final act, which, like the end of Nutcracker and Act IV of The Sleeping Beauty, is a chain of “characteristic dances” and showpieces without any narrative content. Back in my radio days, when I was first learning about ballet (a subject that I knew absolutely nothing about until I was twenty-three), Napoli, Act III was the cheesiest ballet in the repertoire, just on the basis of its title. First, Naples. Naples as imagined by a Danish ballet master. Stop right there. Second, the truncation — the third act performed “out of context.” That was then. Tonight, I sat through the first half of NA3 with slightly detached interest; the characteristic dances didn’t strike me as characteristic of much more than the Bournonville style. But then somebody clapped a tambourine, and the tarantella got going. What an orgy! I realize that that is not the best word to describe an ensemble that even at its most energetic never stumbled into incoherence. But most energetic is exactly what it was, a pile-up of couplings that amounted, almost, to one too many birthday presents. And then there was the finale!

La Sylphide is the first in a line of more sophisticated ballets, notably Giselle but also including, cousin-German-wise, Swan Lake; and it’s easy to reduce its mild, pantomimed melodrama to “precursor” status. But what I remember about it isn’t elementary, because the principals, Caroline Cavallo and Mads Blangstrup, were great actors as well as gifted dancers. Great actors can sell just about anything, and that’s why Mr Blangstrup’s Scottish bridegroom and Ms Cavallo’s elfin temptress blasted a niche in my memory whereby I will recall this evening. Being gifted dancers, they were able to act with their bodies, without speech. They showed me how an art form that imposes silence on its practitioners can be as eloquent as a Shakespearean monologue 

Rialto Note:
Arcadia, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

As I watched Tom Riley play the part of Septimus Hodge in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play that’s making its Broadway premieire sixteen years after its off-Broadway debut, I tried to remember what Billy Crudup was like in the role the first time round. Making this exercise doubly difficult was the presence of Mr Crudup himself on the stage, now playing the part of Bernard Nightingale. Septimus Hodge belongs to the “early” part of the action, which begins in 1809 and ends a few years later; Bernard Nightingale is our contemporary. The two time frames do not share the stage much until the action in both thickens toward the doubled climax, but every time Mr Crudup burst upon the scene he scattered his earlier persona into atoms. His long hair and sober, late-Eighteenth Century demeanor were replaced by a trim cut, a slim suit jacket, and spruce jeans, but mostly it was the smirk that did it. Septimu Hodge might smile, and his smile might drip condescension; but he doesn’t smirk. Bernard Nightingale is a smirk, even in disaster. (And how could he not be? Bill Nighy created the role, in 1993.) I knew that I had seen Billy Crudup as Hodge, but I couldn’t bring his Hodge back. 

The recurrence of Billy Crudup in Arcadia, playing a different role — that of a somewhat older man — is arguably the most marvelous things about this production, not because the actor does a fine job (which he most certainly does) but because the recurrence itself points to the deeper meaning of the play. Arcadia is generally thought to be an intellectually demanding play (as are most of Mr Stoppard’s), and there are certainly passages of expository discussion that require the complete attention of an educated mind. But these moments are actually as rare as they are in real life, which Arcadia, for all its artistry and illusion, more closely captures than most dramas. Most of the characters are very intelligent people, and they talk about things that interest them with wit and passion. These exchanges are never as decorative as they might seem, because they always refer to the deeper meaning that I mentioned; but they are not what the play is “about,” either. 

Arcadia, as a poetic place, dates to the High Renaissance, when the baggage of the classical past was heavily recycled for modern purposes. A mountainous region of the Peloponnese peninsula lent its name to a mythological earthly paradise of nymphs, shepherds, and fragrant bowers. When Philip Sidney imagined it as a getaway for blasé courtiers, the rough edges were cleaned up, and unpleasant possibilities were wrapped up in the enigmatic phrase, Et in Arcadia ego. In lieu of a leisurely ramble through Erwin Panofsky’s famous essay on the subject of this inscription, which famously appears on one painting by Guercino and on two by Poussin, we will come straight to the point, which is that the earlier Poussin hangs at Chatsworth House, one of the most stately homes in England and home, until recently, of the playwright’s good friend Deborah Devonshire.

While it would be as silly to argue that Arcadia is “about” Chatsworth as it would be to say that the play is “about” the laws of entropy and thermodynamics, the slippages of historiography, or the art of landscaping, I became convinced that the play really is about breathing the very real “Arcadian” atmosphere that obtains at England’s great estates — especially the ones that have been held on to by the same family for centuries. It is about spending hours in rooms and beneath trees with someone who might be the Duchess of Something-or-other, and wondering what it might have been like to sit next to an earlier bearer of that title  in the very same spot, a century or two ago. Or perhaps to play with a boy called Lord Augustus. In Arcadia, there are two such boys, played by the same actor, one of them long buried in his grave, the other immured in something like autism. Above all, Arcadia is an essay in the fruitfulness of death.

The Coverly family, headed by the Lord Croom of the moment, resides at Sidley Park in Derbyshire (the home of Chatworth and also of Mr Darcy’s fictional Pemberley — a region of rough, “Arcadian” terrain). We never meet a Lord Croom, and a fine essay could be composed on the playwright’s elegant elision of several “characters” — most remarkably, Lord Byron, the play’s McGuffin — but we do meet a Lady Croom and a total of five Coverly children. Lady Croom and two young Coverlys appear in the play’s earlier time frame, set, as I’ve said, in the middle of the Napoleonic brouhaha. The principal action here is anything but: Lady Thomasina Coverly, whom we realize is a natural mathematical genius, teases her suave and handsome tutor, Septimus Hodge, while nursing a crush on him. Not much happens in the course of this period badinage, but from background, lusty Lady Croom, the poetaster Ezra Chater, whom Septimus has apparently cuckholded, a stentorian Naval officer, a landscape architect called Richard Noakes, and a portly butler all emerge to distract the tutor. A climax is reached when Septimus recognizes the enormity of Thomasina’s amateur discoveries. Thanks to the second, later time frame, we know what happens next, and this makes the end of Arcadia immensely poignant, but learning about it from characters posited two centuries later has the effect of muting the sorrow. Thus the play itself dabbles in the practice of history, contrasting events with the traces that they leave to the future. 

In the later time frame, three Coverly children are gathered at Sidley Park, Valentine, Chloë, and Gus. Also on hand are Hannah Jarvis, an unorthodox — non-academic — literary historian, and, presently, Bernard Nightgale, an altogether more conventional (and unbearable) opportunist from Sussex. Bernard is on the scent of a sensational scandal involving a duel fought long ago — during the earlier time frame. Hannah is researching “the hermit of Sidley Park,” a creature who eked out a mysterious, raving living in an ornamental structure designed and built by Noakes back in — you guessed it. Dramatic irony has never been put to such self-expressive use: as Bernard and Hannah and Valentine chatter away about what “must” have happened long ago at Sidley Park, we know what did, because we just saw it happen.

The climax here mirrors that of the earlier frame: Hannah hits on the answer to her question, and knows who the hermit was. And we’re as sure in our gut that she’s right as she is, even though none of us can be sure. Something deep has happened in the grand but spare room, giving out onto the park, on which we’ve been flies on the wall for several hours; something equally deep has happened much later: the excavation of the earlier depth. These moments are almost simultaneous, and their theatrical impact is like nothing else. The passage of time — real and dramatic — is canceled and ratified in the same instant. As if in homage to the Arcadian entertainments of the Renaissance, Mr Stoppard ends the play with two couples of nymphs and shepherds dancing a simple, wordless ballet. 

Arcadia calls for a cast of twelve, half of whom really have to be stars. The new production, directed by David Leveaux, burns with brilliant talent. Tom Riley and Billy Crudup, I’ve already mentioned, are superb as Septimus Hodge and Bernard Nightingale. (Mr Crudup may well have a corner on playing characters whom we like to dislike.) Bel Powley’s Thomasina was endearingly brash; I only wish that the makeup that she wore at the end had not brought Ann Miller to mind. I hope that we’ll get to see more of Lia Williams; she puts her own fine stamp on the role of the earthily impatient Hannah. Raul Esparza disappeared so completely into the diffident Val that I didn’t recognize him until the interval, and Margaret Colin, as Lady Croom, demonstrated that she will make a fine Lady Bracknell someday. (“But surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence.”) Grace Gummer, the engagingly ingénue daughter of you-know-who, and Noah Robbins held their own as Chloë and Gus Coverly. David Turner was agreeable in the thankless role of Ezra Chater. Byron Jennings, Edward James Hyland, and Glenn Fleshler all sparkled as Noakes, the butler, and the Naval officer, respectively — stock parts that only a playwright of Tom Stoppard’s stature would be permitted to include. Hildegard Bechtler, Donald Holder, and Gregory Gale rose to the challenge of giving Arcadia the sets, lighting, and costumes that a Broadway revival demands; the warm simplicity of their effects invited us all to sojourn for a while in a myth whose power we might have discounted. 

Home Movies:
Mathilde and Clara, in Anton Corbijn’s The American

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

One of my favorite movies from last year was Anton Corbijn’s The American, starring George Clooney and a lot of Italian scenery reminiscent of the Spanish locations used by Sergio Leone in his famous Spaghetti Westerns. Who knew? I thought that The American was an update of the classic European “existentialist” anti-drama of the 1960s, full of brooding silence, unexplained plot points, and disaffected fatalism. It turns out that Corbijn was updating the classic European Western of the 1960s, full of — well, I guess it comes to the same thing. The director tells us, in the running commentary that accompanies the DVD, that he wanted to call the film “Il Americano,” which, he notes, is incorrect Italian — it’s what the American, Jack (George Clooney) calls himself, before a neighbor corrects him (“L’Americano”) All this to highlight the Americanness of an originally British character, drawn from a British novel, Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman.

As you can probably tell, I’ve been on a jag with this film, so it was inevitable that I would listen to the commentary eventually, no matter how bad it was. Corbijn’s commentary isn’t bad, exactly, but it is fairly idle, full of compliments for the actors playing the minor roles and generous lashings of admiration for the big star. One absolutely crucial bit of mystification was cleared up; I’d always thought that it is Pavel (Johan Leysen) who kills Mathilde (Thekla Reuten, shown above). I couldn’t figure out why Pavel did such a thing, but process of elimination ruled out other explanations. What would never have occurred to me, because I’m ignorant about guns, is that Jack sabotages the weapon that Mathilde has commissioned, so that it backfires, killing the shooter instead of the target. Well, it was nice to have that cleared up! But the more Corbijn went on about this and that, the more surprised I was that he had nothing to say about the extraordinary contrast between the film’s two big female roles. Who could be less like Mathilde than Clara (Violante Placido, shown below), the prostitute with whom Jack falls in love?

Indeed, I’m writing this in hopes of banishing Ms Reuten’s image from my mind’s eye, or at least turning down the intensity of her presence. I have never seen an actress radiate  the deadly erotic allure that Puccini’s music imputes to Turandot. She captures everything that is dark and dangerous and “European” about The American. Her Mathilde is everything that a man dreads in a woman. Smart and self-possessed, she exudes doubt that the men with whom she has to deal will be up to her mark. In the scene from which I’ve taken Ms Reuten’s image, Mathilde is explaining what kind of a weapon she wants Jack to make. She speaks softly but briskly, like a fairy-tale princess laying down cruel conditions for the hero’s ordeal. Jack’s responses are evidently satisfactory, but it’s obvious that the effort of satisfying her is wearing him down. She actually asks him, “Can you do it?” Later, we will see Mathilde in a knit white dress with a prim turtleneck collar that nevertheless trumpets the physical endowments that it drapes. Mathilde would be a terrible tease, if you imagined for a moment that she gave a damn. She may, in fact, give a damn, but you don’t want to dwell on what that might be like. In any case, you don’t get to see any of her naughty bits.

Clara, on the other hand, is quite often gorgeously naked. The first thing she does, when Jack takes her for a picnic, is pull off her top and beckon him to join her in the stream. Corbijn gives the audience plenty of opportunity to develop an appreciation of the beauty of Ms Placido’s breasts; it might be going too far to claim that they never upstage her, but in any case they do nothing to check our sense that Clara is a genuine ingénue, a girl who has fallen for Jack and who is ready to give him whatever she has. She wants to enjoy him, and she wants him to enjoy her. When she sallies with him, in the scene that I’ve clipped, about meeting for dinner at “the usual place” — the phrase just slipped out of Jack, but of course their regular place is the bordello, so he can’t mean what he said — her expression is warm and playful. There is nothing challenging about Clara, and by the end of the story Jack can’t believe his good luck in finding her. Unfortunately, by then, he’s also dying.  

In the commentary, Anton Corbijn speaks of Ms Reuten’s wigs. Wigs never crossed my mind, either. I noticed well enough that in the course of her three appearances in the story, Mathilde’s hair goes from ironed-straight to Medusa-permed, with a wavy intermediate coiffure for her knit-dress scene that is at ironic odds with her mission at the moment, which is testing a rifle in a deserted field. (In that episode, she arrives and departs on a sad little train that her presence makes sinister into the bargain.) But I didn’t see anything that a good stylist couldn’t arrange. Who needs wigs? The artifice in Mathilde’s character is bone-deep.  

Rialto Note:
Whipping Man, at MTC

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

Last night, at MTC, we saw Matthew Lopez’s play, Whipping Man. I admired the play and the performances, and I noted the skill with which the playwright wove his plot lines into a dense mat of ironies. But I didn’t enjoy myself for a moment. 

I don’t much like plays without roles for women; there’s that. Nor do I care for plays set in ruined houses — I want to tidy them up, and I exhaust myself trying to decide where I’d start. But the biggest handicap presented by Whipping Man was its Civil War context. When I wasn’t mentally repairing broken windows, I was simmering in my contrarian view of what many Southerners quite rightfully call the War of Northern Aggression. This is not the place to expound on that theme, but listening to a former slave celebrate his new freedom, while knowing what that freedom would in all likelihood mean for him, for his children, and for his children’s children, was an irony so bitter that only the comic flash of a Tom Stoppard could have made it supportable. No one is going to mistake Whipping Man for the work of Tom Stoppard. It is an earnest, well-crafted morality tale, built on a twist designed to make audiences sit up and think. As such, I wish it a flourishing career in the theatre departments of the nation’s colleges and universities. 

The twist is that Southern Jews not only owned slaves but imposed Jewish ways upon them. Whether this made the slaves Jews is the crux of Whipping Man. The Book of Leviticus is quoted: “Such you may treat as slaves. But as for your Israelite kinsmen, no one shall rule ruthlessly over the other.” (25:46). I quote from the JPS edition of the Tanakh; for “Israelite kinsmen,” Mr Lopez substitutes the far more pungent “brothers.” Pungent, that is, because, in a glaringly foreseeable development at the end of the show, two of his characters discover a fraternal bond. When they were children, the slave brother was frequently sent off to the whipping man for chastisement. (The whipping man was never fully explained. We surmised that he provided a service for urban slaveholders who did not staff an overseer.) The first time this happened, the white brother was taken along by the father. During the whipping, the white boy cried out, “Stop!” The black boy thought that his playmate was going to save him, but no: the white boy asked to do the whipping himself. And yet the boys remained playmates for all that. To the degradation of slaveholding, Mr Lopez adds the degradation of Jews, who might have been expected to have known better, his play keens, than to own slaves themselves. But the larger point is that Jews are human beings no better than others. That is the seal of their humanity. 

Whipping Man is set in Richmond, Virginia, in the middle of April, 1865. At the beginning, Caleb, a defecting Confederate officer with a serious leg wound (Jay Wilkison), returns to his stripped and damaged home, to find it in the care of Simon, the butler (André Braugher). When Simon blesses Caleb in Hebrew, the twist begins to turn. Presently another former slave, Nigger John, appears, loaded with goods pilfered from other deserted homes and banters edgily with Caleb about ordering people around. John can read, and he has worked out the date: Pesach. The upshot is that the second act of the play features a makeshift seder (with a brick for the charoset) that has been organized by a pious but illiterate black man — a man who has good reason to walk out on the meal at the play’s climax. It would be wrong to call the construction formulaic, but the ironies are so think that there is barely enough air for the actors to breathe. 

André Braugher does a highly commendable job of showing us a man who has been sustained by wrestling with his faithd; his Simon is neither priggish nor (notwithstanding John’s taunts) “simple.” When the full extent of his master’s faithlessness is revealed to him, Simon does not so much abandon his post as continue in the ways of righteousness with redoubled vigor. But he is as much the slave of a foreordained theatre piece as Simon was the property of a Jewish merchant. André Holland is suitably mercurial as John, a fast talker with cold feet. Jay Wilkison’s Caleb is something of a puzzle; altogether indistinguishable from any good old son of the South, he came across as evidence that a Jewish family could produce a callow college boy. That’s not much of a point to make unless, of course, you’re making the larger one that Jews are just like Mormons or the members of some other American cult. Although interesting in its way, this take on being Jewish is at odds with the rich and complicated sense of being Jewish shared by Simon and John, who, unlike Caleb, regard their faith as no more optional than the color of their skin. Perhaps Mr Lopez is making a point about the pitfalls of assimilation, which is also interesting. Interesting, but not particularly engaging as drama. 

But that’s just me. Most of the audience, once the somber mood of the final curtain had been shaken off, responded with warm appreciation. I just think it’s a pity that Whipping Man was not conceived as a heartbreaking comedy.

Out & About:
December Doings
31 December 2010

Friday, December 31st, 2010

You might think, from recent entries, at I’ve been doing nothing but reading The Kindly Ones and other earnest books, but I’ve had a few nights out in the past weeks.

The second Orpheus Carnegie Hall concert of the season featured the stunning British soprano Kate Royal. Ms Royal sang Britten’s Les Illuminations, a song cycle, set to Rimbaud, that gives the composer’s countrywomen a chance to show off their Continental chops. After what struck me as an uncertain beginning, Ms Royal’s voice bloomed into the music, but when a beautiful woman sings “Being Beauteous” beautifully, it is hard to say where artistry stops and good luck begins. A beautiful young woman, I should say; time will settle the mystery. My companion and I, old school gents, felt that a slip ought to have been worn beneath the clinging white satin gown over which the singer seemed always about to trip. (If wardrobe is going to malfunction, let’s get it over with.)

The concert opened with Barber’s Capricorn Concerto. This astringent music, with its oddly chosen scoring for flute, oboe and trumpet, was very well played, as more or less goes without saying for an Orpheus performance. I was carried back into my first radio days in Houston, when I discovered, thanks to music such as this, that there was a difference between the modern and the avant-garde. Barber was unambiguously a modernist who wished to please and entertain, and I remembered trying to imagine the state of mind of a modernist bourgeois listener who would be pleased and entertained by the Capricorn.

After the interval, we had Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. I had been thinking about the Orpheus way of making music, with its core committees and meetings and endless rehearsals, and I was beginning to realize that most musicians would probably not care to take on so much work. And that’s fine: if Orpheus shows us that you can make great music without a conductor, that doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with conductors. What it does mean, though — and with blazing humanity — is that there is a big difference between music made by an orchestra executing a single mind’s idea of what’s important, and music made by a group of musicians each of whom has his or her own cohering idea of what’s important. The first tends to be more powerful, but the second is unquestionably more interesting.

The Metropolitan Musem Artists in Residence gave the first of three recitals at Grace Rainey Rogers. First up was Beethoven’s seldom-played Opus 44, a set of variations for piano trio. I knew the work vaguely, as I also knew the concluding Dvorak, because I’d put it on one of my Nano playlists. In between, Edward Arron played Luciano Berio’s Les mots sont allés, about which I don’t remember a thing, not a thing, except that it was evidently written to be played beautifully. Then we had a lovely string trio by Gideon Klein, a Moravian composer who helped to organize the musical establishment among inmates at Theresienstadt (where, one imagines, this work had its premiere) before meeting his own death at Auschwitz. The trio is the transporting souvenir of a mind that is very happy to be alive. As soon as I got home, I ordered a recording from Arkivmusic, because I’d like to see if it’s possible to get to know this music so well that the horrible circumstances surrounding its composition evaporate.

For Dvorak’s Piano Quartet, Opus 87,  Jeewon Park came back out to join the three principals of  MMArtists, who in addition to her husband, Mr Arron, include violinist Colin Jacobnsen and violist Nicholas Cords. The best performances of Germanic chamber music from the Nineteenth Century seem always to suggest that excellence of execution, no matter how manifest, is of secondary importance to the expression of the musicians’ friendship, and Mr Arron and his friends reminded us that this tendency attains its high point with Dvorak.

Kathleen begged me to wait to see The King’s Speech until she could see it with me, and I did. I liked it and was very heartwarmed, but I was surprised at how brown and quiet-looking it was. Every attempt appears to have been made to strip the picture of regal flash. Home Life at “The Firm” would make a good subtitle, if smart  movies had subtitles (why is that only the most brainless ones do?) Colin Firth, although a very handsome man, does not have the interestingly sleek, quasi-“Oriental” features of George VI; nor does he project majesty. Well, of course not; this is a movie about a stammerer who is taught the confidence to speak plaintly by a failed actor just this side of a mountebank. The movie’s funniest moment is also its most rude: the Duchess of York (the magnificent Helena Bonham Carter) trills that dinner with the family of her husband’s helper would be delightful and then immediately rolls up this prospect in the claim of a “previous engagement.” Without ruffling her composure in the slightest, the actress projects the alarm of a cat in free fall.

Geoffrey Rush, as the self-taught speech therapist Lionel Logue, is grand and craggy enough to anchor the story through its gales of potential uplift; there is also a terribly important scene in which the Duke of York (as he then still is) berates and spurns Logue with a heartlessness that makes you want to summon the RSPCA. And yet the story does not follow in the footsteps of The Madness of King George. This King George actually apologizes, which is also terribly important.

I wanted to see more of Eve Best, who plays Wallis Simpson with breathtakingly impudent self-assurance; what I’m probably clamoring for is a series of movies in which Ms Best and Guy Pearce enact further adventures of the Windsors. Mr Pearce is thoroughly convincing as “David,” a man who, all who knew him seem to agree, was fundamentally childish and inconsequential but also blessed with a godlike grace that his brother lacked. I also wanted to see more of Jennifer Ehle, who plays Mrs Logue; but then I always want to see more of Jennifer Ehle. Don’t you sometimes think that Jennifer Ehle is the Meryl Streep upgrade?

Another true-story movie that I saw but did not get round to writing up was the one in which Ewan McGregor plays a cutie by the name of Philip Morris — I Love You Philip Morris turns out to have nothing to do with smoking. Not a frame of this frolicsome film went by without my wondering, bewildered, how it ever got made. Where is the audience for a romp about a nutty gay con man?  Jim Carrey’s brio is so extreme that his scenes feel animated, to accommodate cartoonishly stretched limbs and leers — but we expect this of Mr Carrey. Philip Morris is a must-see movie because of the bashful glances that Mr McGregor casts through the magnolias of his eyelashes. 

¶ At MTC, we saw Spirit Control. (Kathleen also saw The Pitmen Painters; Ms NOLA took my ticket to that show.) The interesting thing about this play by Beau Willimon is that it works very well as a theatre piece but fails again and again as a formal structure. At the very beginning, Adam, an air-traffic controller, attempts to guide an inexperienced woman through the landing of a small plane. This increasingly hair-raising scene ends in a way that guarantees the audience’s sympathy with and concern for Adam, and a plainly naturalistic sequel would have been satisfying. As it is, Spirit Control ought to crash as disastrously as a misguided plane, but the performances are so strong that it doesn’t matter that we can’t go along with the playwright’s arty meta complications. We still care.

Winter’s Bone

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010


What struck me first, when Winter’s Bone came to an end, was that Americans don’t make pictures like this. Largely silent, intently focused, and hugely reliant on the viewer’s empathy, it is one of those movies about common, even primitive people that are doomed to find their most appreciative audience among metropolitan types. When they succeed, as Winter’s Bone certainly does, it’s in the teeth of a defiance that’s aimed mostly at the hero’s adversaries but also in part at the audience, forbidding it to condescend.

This is a movie without a background; aside from some vaguely-sketched family history, time exists only as the medium in which the story is told. But the story begins with the wreckage wrought upon the heroine’s family by a plague of methamphetamines that began long before the she was born, and Debra Granik, who has no intention of cluttering her spare film with generalizing backstory about the plague, leaves it to us to make sense of the wreckage. From Nick Reding’s inestimable Methland, I had learned that methamphetamines, like all opiates and their synthetic kin, destroy families in two ways. The drug itself is toxic to character, but so is the traffic. The money that sprouts in the corruption of drug-dealing seems almost an embodiment of the euphoria that spurts amidst somatic degradation. What distinguishes methamphetamines from so-called “recreational” drugs is that it begins as crutch for overworked laborers, enabling them, initially at least, to put in enough hours to put food on their families’ table. The irony of this metastasized work ethic is crushing.

The story that Winter’s Bone has to tell is very simple. Jessup Dolly, a crack methamphetamine cook, has pledged his home as collateral for a bail bond — and then disappeared. This home is all that Ree, his seventeen year-old daughter, has in the world, which would be bad enough if she did not have the care of her broken-minded mother and her two younger siblings, both still children. Her only other resource is her extended family. But the ties that bind this clan have been corroded by drugs. Ree needs to find her father, dead or alive, in order to keep a roof over her charges’ heads, but her cousins are conflicted about helping her. It’s never spelled out why they’re conflicted; that would only make for more clutter, distracting us from experiencing Ree’s ordeal as closely as she experiences it as possible. Old people might be interested in long-standing grudges, but young people find family history suffocating. Ree couldn’t care less about her father’s fallings-out. She doesn’t care very much about him. All she wants is a home for her family.

Ree’s doggedness eventually creates a scandal: why is no one helping the poor girl? That one of her aids is the woman who has subjected her to a savage beating isn’t at all, by the time it happens, surprising. Warned off from the search for her father, Ree isn’t the slightest bit pig-headed, but she has no other options. And she has never been in a position to compromise — she has never had any negotiating chips. Her father’s improvidence gives her her first counter in the wearying game of dead-end adulthood: she can give up on her mother, her brother, and her sister. Her refusal to do so eventually reminds everyone else of what’s good about the human heart.

Ms Granik’s cast is never less than persuasive, but to assist her young star, Jennifer Lawrence, she has two fantastic supporting actors, John Hawkes, as Ree’s uncle, Teardrop; and Dale Dickey, as Merab, the most baleful challenge to Ree’s ordeal. Ms Lawrence’s performance is so transcendent that it withers the full bouquet of laudatory adjectives. That’s part of the un-American-ness of Winter’s Bone: it demands an un-American reticence.