Maps of Different Orders

I’ve been listening to Jamie Bernstein read her book, Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein. Much of it is set in the Park Avenue apartment where she lived with her father, Leonard Bernstein. When she mentioned the address, I thought, “Hmm, that sounds familiar.” Then I realized it’s the address where my wife, Kristine, spends many of her days working. I’ve also been reading the novel The Goldfinch, much of which also takes places in another Park Avenue apartment.

And it occurred to me that, though they all are on Park Avenue, I have three different maps of Park Avenue in my mind, overlayed as if they were transparencies.

One is the Park Avenue of my personal experience. Having visited Kristine at her workplace, I have entered that building through its entrance on a side street, ascended in an elevator and been a guest in one of the more elegant apartments I have encountered.

Another is the Park Avenue of independent reality. This is the Park Avenue the existence of which is confirmed by history and journalism and documentaries like Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream [which you can see online at]. This is a place that would exist without my awareness or experience of it. And, reading Bernstein’s book, I am aware that many of the stories she expertly relates of her celebrated family occurred within a building I’ve visited.

And then there is the Park Avenue that is the setting for so much fiction. Being a location synonymous with wealth and privilege, it is understandable that many fiction writers and dramatists have placed many of their wealthy characters there. Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the latest book I’ve encountered that has peopled that real place with fictional characters.

Just a thought I’ve stumbled over …

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Joan Littlewood and “Sparrows Can’t Sing”

The British Film Institute is offering a streaming channel called BFI Players Classics through Roku for $5.99 a month. Mostly on offer are things like Ealing comedies, Hammer horror films, costume dramas, etc. There are a few oddball discoveries though. I was attracted to a film I’d never heard of called Sparrows Can’t Sing, largely because it was directed by Joan Littlewood.

I don’t know many American theater people who know who Littlewood was, but she was quite a phenomenon in postwar English theater. With the company she founded in 1945, Theater Workshop, she began creating devised theater before the term was in popular use. Working in east London, she was less interested in catering to the tastes of middle-class theatergoers than putting together works that reflected working class life. Today she is probably best known for discovering and directing 19-year-old Shelagh Delaney’s play, A Taste of Honey, and staging O! What a Lovely War! (not to be confused with the film version, which she hated). Sparrows Can’t Sing began as a 1960 theater project she directed based on a story by a merchant seaman named Stephen Lewis. Though Lewis is credited with the script of the stage version, the show was largely based on improvisations under Littlewood’s direction.

In 1963, a film version was released. The script is co-credited to Lewis and Littlewood and Littlewood directed. The story concerns a (surprise) merchant seaman named Charley who returns from a two-year voyage intending to re-connect with his wife, Maggie. He discovers that, in the meantime, Maggie has taken up with a married bus driver named Bert and has maybe had a daughter with him. Charley shrugs this off. He figures Maggie still belongs with him, and he begins a campaign to win her back. He’s a bit of a thug, but Maggie is no doormat and ultimately she’s going to do what she wants to do.

Plot is not very important, however. What makes the film so engaging is the vibrant gallery of characters and how, at any moment, any group of people on the street will chime in like a Greek chorus on the private lives that refuse to stay private. There are songs (one by Lionel Bart, who wrote Oliver!) and slapstick and fistfights and boisterous scenes in the local pub. James Booth is Charley and Barbara Windsor is Maggie. Windsor eventually spent much of her career in the Carry On series, in which she usually ended up squealing while she lost her clothing. To see her in Sparrow after seeing a few of the Carry On films is to discover how much more there was to her. (Indeed, a little internet research reveals that she won a British Oscar for her performance in this film.) For fans of Richard Lester, a particular treat is seeing early work by Victor Spinetti and Roy Kinnear (father of contemporary star Rory Kinnear).

I was most interested in the chance to see something of Littlewood’s work after years of reading about her. It’s the only feature film she directed, and it’s a shame she didn’t continue because she’s a natural film director. The compositions are fresh and the rhythms are infectiously jazzy. And the ensemble of actors, drawn from her troupe, create a vivid community of colorful characters.

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Spoiler Alert

If you haven’t seen Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and Yesterday and intend to, now’s the time to stop reading.

If you have seen them, did you notice that both use the same plot gimmick for similar effect?

Hollywood posits that three members of the Manson family switch targets at the last minute and have the bad luck to tangle with Leonardo di Caprio and Brad Pitt, who terminate them with extreme prejudice. The result? Sharon Tate and her friends survive.

Yesterday posits that the whole Beatle phenomenon never happened, except somehow (don’t ask why) one guy remembers all their songs and introduces them to the world as his creations. The result? John Lennon was not murdered and the leading character encounters him as a philosophically cool older guy in his seventies doing art projects to amuse himself in obscurity.

So, in the alternate worlds that these films inhabit, figures who were murdered are spared, and the audience gets fleeting moments of wish fulfillment.

Of course, films have never been exactly reliable sources of history. Mississippi Burning was predicated on the laughable idea that the FBI was friendly to the civil rights movement in the Sixties. Words and Music, the musical bio of Rodgers and Hart, featured Mickey Rooney as a heterosexual Hart who died in part because of his unrequited love for Betty Garrett. And, to the dismay of the Dewey family, the film Hoodlum was partially predicated on the lie that Thomas E. Dewey was corrupt.

Distortion of history for dramatic purposes has a long history. Shakespeare maligned Richard III and made a hero out of the genocidal Henry V because the stories worked out better that way. Also, he was writing to entertain the family that had displaced Richard.

But I think the fact that two major films of the summer are unapologetic about plastering stickers of fantasy over notorious tragedies suggests a new willingness on the part of the audience to accept blatant fabrication for temporary satisfaction. Though in both cases, they know that what they are watching is entirely untrue, the audience applauds the lies as things they would prefer to believe, at least for the moment.

This brings me to our fabricator-in-chief. On a daily basis, through his tweets and his public statements, Trump actively pushes narratives that are at war with reality. I am going to assume that he knows that he is lying much of the time, or at least passing on dubious product. What is disturbing is that, unlike the audiences attending Hollywood and Yesterday who mostly know that they’re watching fabrications meant to be appreciated as such, a substantial part of Trump’s audience either doesn’t know or (worse) doesn’t care that what they’re being handed is false.

I’m not about to suggest that artists shouldn’t use whatever narrative tool that serves them in telling stories they want to tell. But I do think public servants should hew to a different standard. And I wonder if an audience in the habit of ingesting a regular diet of fabrications from their entertainment might be more vulnerable to believing fabrications from those who betray their obligation to tell the truth.

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Monstrous Women

“I think there’s something about monstrous women that’s fascinating. The villainesses. Villainesses are fantastic. We don’t see enough of them.” So said Moira Buffini in my conversation with her in my book, What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing. I have been thinking about that line a good deal lately.

Partially because Moira’s own play, Handbagged (which is in the final days of its run in New York at 59e59th Street), offers such a vivid example of what she described in her depiction of Margaret Thatcher. The play is about the tension between Queen Elizabeth II and Thatcher. Though Buffini has little use for royalty generally, Elizabeth is depicted as having a genuine concern for the people and uses her position to try to offset Thatcherism whenever she can. (Moira tells me that she spent a fair amount of time and effort researching this, so the play has a grounding in reality.) Audiences seem not to be able to get enough of Elizabeth. In addition to Moira, Peter Morgan has written a hit film, a hit play and a hit TV series about her, and Alan Bennett wrote a play and a short novel about her. Still, in Handbagged, it’s Thatcher who constantly steals focus. The queen is decent and empathetic. Thatcher is appalling. No contest.

I’m beginning this post from Chicago, where I packed my schedule with theatre. Two shows which particularly excited me were at a wonderful theatre complex in Wicker Park called The Den. Joel Drake Johnson’s Four Places concerns a brother and sister trying to cope with the emergency that is their aging parents’ marriage. Michael John LaChiusa’s Queen of the Mist is about a woman who, at 63 in 1901, climbed into a barrel, tumbled over Niagara Falls … and survived but didn’t get the payoff she expected. Four Places’ Peggy and Queen’s Annie are both big, self-dramatizing characters who would exhaust and enfuriate you in real life, but onstage they compel. They are played by two performers I’ve had the pleasure of following for decades of Chicago glory – Meg Thalken and Barbara E. Robertson. Their work is the equal of the performances that were recently given Tonys and Drama Desks in New York. Indeed, if Robertson had been nominated against the slate of “best actress in a musical” nominees, I wouldn’t have hesitated to give her my vote, and it would have been a toss-up for me between Thalken and Elaine May for “best actress.”

But they have platforms created by Johnson and LaChiusa: parts that tap into big emotions and give us women who show no regret about overstepping the traditional boundaries of behavior usually assigned to female characters.

One of the ironies of the historical moment we’re in is that, with all of the attention paid to women in contemporary society, so many dramatists (of both genders) have chosen to depict women as victims rather than the driving forces of stories. Much of our national conversation lately has been about the wretched behavior of men, and the recent season reflected this by giving us a parade of thugs, bullies, killers, narcissists and cheats. Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird stood out because he was the rare well-meaning (if initially naive) man who strove to do the right thing. The women in many of these plays had to defend themselves from the guys.

Not that that’s the whole picture. Three of the six women nominated for 2019 Tony Awards for leading actress played driven, dynamic characters in scripts new to Broadway. All three were drawn from life – Laurie Metcalf as an alternate version of Hillary Clinton in Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton, Janet McTeer as Sara Bernhardt in Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet, and Heidi Schreck as herself in her own script, What the Constitution Means to Me. Clinton has made a career out of vaulting over barriers, Rebeck’s version of Bernhardt is both a sexual and an artistic rebel, and Schreck’s show is predicated on defying political and personal convention.

A few other women got to play what Janet McTeer termed “baddasses.” In Abby Rosebrock’s Blue Ridge, Marin Ireland played a school teacher with rage issues in a halfway house, and in Sharr White’s The True, Edie Falco played a hard-driving political operative working behind-the-scenes (as a woman had to) in Albany in 1977. They were two of the season’s most vivid performances, and, if they weren’t quite the villainesses Moira Buffini relishes, they assaulted boundaries with gusto.

And I guess I’m hoping for more. While it’s important to pay attention to those who have been treated badly, there is a special pleasure in watching Edward Albee’s Martha, Tennessee Williams’s Blanche, Tracy Letts’s Vi, Lillian Hellman’s Regina and Gypsy’s Mama Rose let loose and remind us that bad behavior is not limited to one gender. Even as these characters sometimes appall us, they are pretty damn entertaining.

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Terrence McNally Documentary on AMERICAN MASTERS

Having been involved in NY theatre since 1967, watching Terrence McNally: Every Act of Life stirred up decades of memories. Some of them involve Terrence. I can’t claim to be a close friend, but he and his work have been a constant presence for decades.

He probably doesn’t remember it, but I played organ for the off-off-Broadway production of his play about alcoholic country-western singers, Whiskey at St. Clement’s.

The first show I ever saw at Yale Rep was a play of his called The Tubs which featured my Second City friend Anthony Holland. It was set in a gay bath house and, though it had funny passages, it was a fairly somber play about isolation. Terrence subsequently rewrote it as a flat-out farce, The Ritz. (Robert Brustein, the producer at Yale at the time, harrumphed at its transformation into something more audience-friendly.)

I was at a playwrights conference in North Carolina when a draft of (I think) the first act of Love! Valour! Compassion! was first read. Even that early taste suggested it would be a major play.

One night, I found myself passing a diner on West 23rd Street and saw him and Wendy Wasserstein through the window. I waved, and they signaled I should come in and join them. We talked theatre, of course. I thought, “Isn’t that cool, big-deal playwrights still shmooze and debate over coffee!” I had no sense they were involved. (I didn’t learn that until I read the biography of Wendy. According to that, Terrence was game to go public with their relationship, but Wendy was not.)

In 2001, Terrence and I were both in Chicago putting up new plays. I seem to remember that at the time he hadn’t had much experience with the town, so, since I consider myself a Chicago boy, I thought it would be appropriate to invite him to dinner at the Four Farthings and give him a little background about the history of the theatre scene there. After dinner, we walked south through the Triangle neighborhood and ended up in the lobby of Second City, which I thought might be meaningful to him given his connection with Elaine May. (You may remember I wrote a book about the history of Second City called Something Wonderful Right Away.) We ran into a guy there who invited us to a musical he had written; it was being given a performance late that night in the studio theatre at Chicago Shakespeare. Under his breath, Terrence asked me if we actually wanted to do that, and I told him I knew the guy as a pianist for Second City and thought he was talented. So we went to see what was later titled Melancholy Baby, a show about second-rate Broadway songwriters trying to make a musical out of Hamlet featuring Jack McBreyer as Hamlet and Alexandra Billings as Gertrude. We laughed our asses off. The guy who invited us was Jeff Richmond, who, with his wife, Tina Fey, later wrote the musical Mean Girls.

Otherwise, it’s been mostly friendly hellos as we run into each other in the theatre, and the occasional email of congratulations.

The film, which will shortly run on the American Masters series, is filled with images of friends and lovers and the community it’s a treat to be a part of. Some of it is a little painful to watch. There’s Marin Mazzie talking about working with Terrence on Ragtime, and I think of the last time I saw her, which was in the lobby of CSC after her performance in a play by Terrence called Fire and Air. She radiated joy (as usual) and we talked briefly about a project that we’d been kicking around doing together. I was blind-sided by her death. In retrospect, I think she knew that it was the last conversation we would have.

There’s also a clip of Terrence sharing a stage on a panel with Edward Albee and Lanford Wilson, both friends and both gone (and both in my book, What Playwrights Talk About When They Talk About Writing).

“Jesu, the days that we have seen.” “No more of that, Master Shallow.”

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There is a kind of civil war going on on Broadway this season. On one side are the traditional and established parties–the commercial producers, the movie companies, the establishment non-profits that account for the bulk of the productions mounted each year. Call them the uptown gang. On the other side are the more unruly types who are frequently more political and edgier and who are used to working on small stages in remote corners of the city. The downtown gang.

The chief rivals for Best Play are The Ferryman–a three-act blockbuster Broadway production with a company of 35–and What the Constitution Means to Me–a 90-minute piece featuring three performers that is less a traditional play than an autobiographic monologue with contributions from two additional actors. Though I have my reservations about The Ferryman (it includes practically every trope that has ever appeared in an Irish play), it nevertheless has a gallery of engaging characters and a compelling story. It is a marvelous construction that holds an audience utterly captive for more than three hours. Uptown producing on a high level. Constitution speaks directly to our moment, requiring the audience to seriously consider if the foundational document of our country is in need of reform or complete overhaul. Totally downtown.

Constitution played the New York Theatre Workshop before coming to Broadway. So did Hadestown, the downtown entry for Best Musical. My hunch is that its chief competition is an accomplished stage adaptation of the classic movie comedy, Tootsie. Tootsie is filled to overflowing with funny lines, bouncy songs, and big performances in the old Broadway tradition.

All of the nominated revivals of straight plays are from managements with long histories on Broadway.

But the two shows nominated for Best Revival of a Musical offer a study in contrasts. Kiss Me, Kate has been modestly revised for a contemporary audience (the lyric that from Shakespeare that began, “I am ashamed that women are so simple” is now “I am ashamed that people are so simple), but it is securely within the tradition of previous stagings. The Oklahoma! directed by Daniel Fish looks like no production of it you’ve ever seen. It is staged in three-quarters with the playing area defined by picnic tables, the orchestra has been replaced by a country-western band, and no effort is made to invoke the period in which the story is set. Instead, Curly often plugs in a guitar to sing, and use is made of video when the stage is thrown into darkness for the smokehouse scene. The original production of Oklahoma! opened during World War II and was meant to remind the audience of the values Americans were fighting for–neighborliness, true love, picnics. This production suggests that there was a lot of violence and hypocrisy not openly acknowledged in the story. The show’s putative hero turns out to be a killer and the cheerful neighbors choose to be accessories. A downtown perspective if there ever was one.

I’m betting that at least two out of the three cases, the downtown gang will prevail. It’s not just that the shows themselves are bracing and refreshing, it’s that the voters have largely grown up in a theatre that was transformed by the downtown artists that began revolutions in the Sixties and continued to define themselves in opposition to traditional Broadway-style productions. We see this in other productions. Gary is a downtown play with an uptown budget and Sam Gold’s take on King Lear is meant to challenge traditional stagings not only in casting women in what are usually male roles but in its aggressive anachronisms.

I don’t have a concluding sentence. Do I need one?

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Maybe one of the differences between a blog entry and an essay is that an essay should be a shapely, elegant composition.  With, you know, a structure, a build. The final sentence should give the reader a sense of arriving at a destination. A blog–as I see it–can be jottings of things that occur to you without much development or elaboration.

So here are a couple of things that occur to me about this season:

Shakespeare. In Be More Chill, a high school is putting on a post-apocalyptic adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Tootsie, the project Dorothy Michaels is cast in is a sequel to Romeo and Juliet. Gary is a sequel to Titus Andronicus. I have still to see Tootsie and Gary (I’ve heard good things about both), but do you think maybe, after this season, we can give the fucking around with Shakespeare joke a rest for a little while?  (Notice that I’m not mentioning Kiss Me, Kate because it’s a revival.)

Lanford Wilson’s Burn This and Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. An emotionally-withdrawn woman finds herself besieged by a volcanically emotional guy who can cook and they have great sex while the woman tries to figure out what she really wants. Both plays. They both premiered in 1987, they both were revived in 2002, and now both are playing on Broadway. I must say I was especially moved by the note in the Burn This program by McNally.

If this were an essay I would go on. It’s not an essay.

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