Tuesday, January 31, 2006

"A Good Woman"

A charming new movie starring Helen Hunt, Scarlett Johannson and Tom Wilkinson that opens Friday. It's based on "Lady Windemere's Fan" by Oscar Wilde, and it's packed with many of Wilde's greatest bon mots. My favorite was perhaps this exchange:

"Bigamy is having one wife too many."
"So is monogamy."

It's sweet and romantic, but smart, too. The first hour has an interesting subtext about privacy that resonates in the Internet age, even though the movie is set in 1930.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Zen and the Art of the Golf Swing

Golf is on my mind.

Yesterday saw the completion of one of the most exciting golf events in recent memory. And it wasn’t even a major.

The Buick Invitational is held at the North and South courses at Torrey Pines, and the weekend rounds are played on the South Course, which will host the 2008 U.S. Open. It’s a course with very sharp teeth. The Buick was Tiger’s first tournament of the season, and the presence of the world number one added to the sense of anticipation, especially since he hadn't played in two months. Going into the final round, Sergio Garcia and Rod Pampling (if you just said “who?” don’t worry, you’re not alone) were tied for first, with local boy Phil Mickelson and Tiger one shot back. Then the rest of the pack joined in the fun: with the last group of golfers already well into the back nine, there were something like eight players tied for the lead at -9. Jose-Maria Olazabal walked off the 18th at 10-under, alone in first, but both Tiger Woods and a tour rookie made birdies on the 18th to join him in a three-man playoff. The rookie, Nathan Green, seemed to crumple a bit under the pressure of playing for a title against two guys with six of his jackets (that is, green) between them. He pulled his second shot into the grandstand, and stubbed a chip to make bogey and settle for third. Olazabal bogeyed the second playoff hole (the major stain on the tournament’s memorability) allowing Tiger to win with just a par.

But that isn’t why golf is on my mind. Golf is always on my mind. Or nearly so.

I’d hacked around a bit when I was a kid, playing only rarely until giving it up entirely for about seven years. A little over two years ago, I started to play again, with greater regularity. I broke 100. And that was it. I knew a former heroin addict who told me “heroin isn’t great until it’s got its hooks in you.” Breaking 100 was how golf got its hooks in me. I love a rating system, always have. I love an empirical measure with which one can measure progress. Now that 100 was in my rear view, a new goal stretched out before me: to break 90. (Mission accomplished, but only six or seven times so far.) Next in my sights is breaking 80, a far tougher proposition. I’ve managed an 82 (on a 5743-yard course) but haven’t gotten close to that again. But I will. After that, well, we’ll see. As much as I love the game, I don’t really have the time that seems to be required to get one’s game to the point where you can shoot in the 70s, let alone do so with any regularity. But, older and fatter guys than I have managed to do it, so I’m not ruling anything out at this point.

As I continue to practice and to play, pursuing those elusive lower scores, I find myself wondering what it is about golf that has pulled me and so many other men into its clutches. Given the history and complexity of the game and my own meager skills (at both golf and self-discovery), any insight here provided will likely be sparse. But I'll try a few angles.

Let’s begin with perfection. In my bathroom mirror is stuck a postcard reproduction of a print by artist Jonathan Borofsky. It is a handwritten manifesto entitled “WHAT IS DRAGGING ME?” It reads, in part: “I am unhappy because I am not perfect. I want to be better than everyone else. I want to be unique and I do not know that I am unique! I want to be unique by being “better” – this a false premise. This feeling keeps me in a state of tension which I seem to enjoy. I don’t like where I’m at now (that I’m not perfect) and instead I want to be there (god state) now. I don’t want to work for this because I know deep down inside I never can be god-like, so, though I don’t give up, I never work really for what I can do – namely, MY BEST.”

Golf has a perfect score. 18. From tee to hole in one shot, eighteen times in a row. It is, however, currently physically impossible. So instead of pointing at an unattainable mark, golf sets a standard of excellence. Par. Par is the score an expert golfer should make for a round of golf. (Interestingly, "par" in golf is territory only a handful of players ever reach, but in the wider world has become synonymous with average.)

Golf is the only major sport with the possibility of an objectively perfect score - unless you count bowling as a major sport, and if you do, we need to have a talk. Besides, bowling’s perfection is achievable. There are more than 40,000 perfect games in league play every year. Quite a few more are probably rolled in casual games or practice. Virtually all other perfect score possibilities have subjective criteria – skating, gymnastics, etc. There are a handful of other, minor sports where perfection is possible: e.g., shooting, horseshoes.

But I can think of no sport where a standard of perfection has been set – and is entirely unattainable under the laws of physics and the current Rules of Golf. Nobody, not even the world’s greatest, gets anywhere near perfection. A 59 is the lowest score ever recorded in a PGA tournament. 13 under. Pitiful. Not even close to a level of “perfection” that is possible given today’s golf equipment and the limits of the human body. Conceivably, someone could shoot a 32 -- an eagle on every par three and four, a double eagle on every par five. Not going to happen, but within the realm of physical possibility. How about a more achievable goal, say making birdie on every three- or four-par and eagle on every par five? Shooting a 50. Not likely. Even a birdie on every hole -- a 54 -- seems still far out of reach, since only a handful of 59s have ever been carded.

It’s comforting that the very best golfers in the world struggle along with me, never nearing perfection. Sometimes, they make shots even we hackers can relate to. Nathan Green's chip on the first playoff hole was the sort of abject failure that would make even me roll my eyes in self-disgust. Golf gets in your head that way.

Another reason golf is so addictive is that it is inherently democratic. Despite its elitist reputation, golf is quite inclusive. Few people ever experience the thrill of dunking a basketball, or running a sub four-minute mile or flinging a football 60 yards downfield. And though few of us can drive the ball 300+ yards, from time to time, every golfer hits a shot that is identical to the sort Tiger, Vijay, Ernie or Phil make with somewhat greater regularity: the 60-foot putt that curls in, the chip from off the green that hits the flag and drops, the approach from 180 yards that nuzzles up close. (I do it with a 3-wood, Tiger with his 7-iron.) And 18 times a round, every golfer gets to hear the same lovely sound the pros do when the ball finds the bottom of the cup.

Now that golf has me in its clutches, I have decided to put it to my advantage and turn golf into a sort of meditation practice. Instead of paying attention to my breath, I pay attention to how my body moves in swinging the club. Like meditation, golf is about being in the moment. The shot you just made is already in the past; nothing can be done about it. The shot after this one is in the future – all you have is what’s in front of you right now. The ball sits there patiently and waits for you. All you can do is stay focused, put the best swing you can on the ball and accept with equanimity whatever is the result. At least, that’s what I'm aiming for.

Like life, golf is deeply nuanced, complex, maddening, joyous and a bit random. You can attack it with everything you have – and it will still beat you in the end. So you might as well enjoy while you’ve got it.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Guilty Pleasure

To see -- or rather hear -- one of television's great performance feats, tune to Jewelry Television during prime time. The women who sell the rings and baubles will blow you away with their ability to maintain unrestrained energy and excitement about the products they are hawking. Problem is, you can't get a sense of the feat they are pulling off by watching for a few minutes. You have to stick with them for 20 or 30 minutes to get a full appreciation. They never take a break -- after all, this is all commercial, so when they go on the air for their four-hour shift, they are in for the duration.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Can the center hold?

Something is afoot in this country. Either that, or it’s my overzealous optimism running away with me again. Or perhaps it’s just blind hope. But I’m beginning to sense that it’s more than just me who believes there has to be a better way of governing. I can’t help believing that most Americans don’t feel represented by politicians who become more and more entrenched in their partisanship with each passing day. I simply refuse to believe that most Americans aren’t disgusted by the posturing and vitriol and name-calling being passed off by talk radio and cable news pundits as the "national debate."

I believe that all across this country, no matter what color the state, that there is a huge bloc of voters that want liberty and equal justice for all. Voters who want security, prosperity and efficient use of shared resources. Who want the Constitution to be taken at its word -- while leaving room for a wise and fair judiciary to interpret it to meet the needs of a culture that is very different from the one at the time the document was written.

But I don't think the current leadership of either party represents most of America - or even most of their own constituency.

I think most Americans would like there to be no abortions. But I think most feel since that is impossible, abortion should be safe and legal, even while it is discouraged. I think most Americans want to use our might to stand up to terrorism and protect our citizens, but not to take what isn't ours or to bully anyone. I think most Americans want clean air and water.

I think most Americans believe there is a God. But I also think most believe everyone should have a right to hold whatever spiritual beliefs they choose -- even if that's no belief at all. And that even people with whom they disagree (or who they think are sinners) deserve equal civil rights.

I think most Americans want all their fellow citizens to be productive members of our society -- working, enjoying themselves, living happy lives. I may not agree with Bill O’Reilly or Lewis Farrakhan, but I wish them both health and happiness. I hope we all feel that way, that we all want each of our fellow Americans to be able to enjoy their lives in liberty and happiness.

The challenge for us all is how to wield our collective power to create the change we need. We need to stand up and face reality. If we don't get ourselves refocused and pull together as a nation, China and India are going to clean our clocks, economically-speaking. If we as a nation don’t start acting with intelligence and honor, we’re going to find ourselves isolated in a global society. If we don't rediscover what unites us, we will become puppets of an oligarchy.

Maybe we do need a new party. If we do, I'd like it to be one that is smart about money, and wants government to stay out of people's lives unless it can be proven to deliver real benefits. I'd like it to be a party that watches out for the interests of America while recognizing we have to share a planet with several billion other people. A party that generally approaches any issue with an open, rational mind. When we face a problem, such as oil dependency or bird flu or Osama bin Laden or crop production, I want a party filled with people who say “How can we best solve this?” as opposed to “How can we address this in a way that will make me and my donors and my friends more money?”

Something has to change in America, or the warring factions in Washington will succeed in ripping apart the solid center of this country.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Whither Courage? (Or is it wither?)

A friend pointed me to a recent piece by Molly Ivins (click the title above to link to it or go to: http://www.workingforchange.com/article.cfm?itemid=20250). In it, she exhibits similar aspects of distaste as mine to what the current political climate seems to be doing to the country we both love.

I'm not in perfect agreement with all Ivins's thinking (e.g., just because a majority of Americans want a higher minimum wage or would support a windfall profits tax for oil companies doesn't necessarily mean those are good ideas; the majority of Americans also believe only heterosexual couples can fully enter into certain civil contracts), but she gives voice to some of the frustration I've been feeling, and supports my growing sense that momentum might be building for a major shift in American politics.

More on that later. For now, read what Molly has to say.

Polarization continues

Ann Coulter, calendar girl of the far, far right spoke yesterday at Philander Smith College, an historically black university in Little Rock, Arkansas. During her speech, filled with her usual incendiary rhetoric, she joked that Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens ought to have "rat poisoning put in his creme brulee."

As students discussed Coulter's presentation after she spoke, one sophomore said: "We need someone on the Democratic side who is just as outspoken as she is." So what the left needs is a vitriolic liar who's willing to say virtually anything in order to keep her name in the papers? I don't think so. I realize this sophomore is just one person, but I think her remark is indicative of a trend I see all over the place -- the polarization of rhetoric that is threatening to rip the solid center of this country in two.

Call me an optimist, but I think what we need to fight people like Coulter is not a corresponding shrew on the left, but more reasoned, rational voices who appeal to the mass of Americans who respect the Constitution of the United States and the country it created.


It's clear that many on the right wing have been calling on faith and (supposed) morality to gain political points and pander to a base of evangelical Christians. There seems to be a huge group of people who make their voting decisions based not on the merits of a specific candidate or issue, but on whether the candidate shares their religious point of view or whether the issue is in line with biblical teaching.

Now the other side is trying a similar tack. Democratic lawmakers in Georgia and Alabama are attempting to establish classes in public schools on the historical, cultural and literary impact of the Bible. Their stated motive, however, is not to encourage greater understanding of a book that has impacted billions of lives and changed the face of the world, but to exploit religious faith for political gain.

"Rather than sitting back on our heels and then being knocked in our face, we are going to respond in a thoughtful way," said Kasim Reed, a Georgia state senator from Atlanta and one of the sponsors of a bill to establish such a class. "We are not going to give away the South anymore because we are unwilling to talk about our faith." Clearly this isn't just about how children can learn valuable lessons from a secular study of a sacred work, or how biblical literacy provides context for other learning, given that the Bible's influence is so broad. It's about votes. About doing whatever it takes to retain power.

This isn't just a few southern state legislators, either. Even DNC chairman Howard Dean defended the action by saying Democrats had been talking about values in a secular way, "and we don't have to." Pardon me, but what happened to the idea that curricula development should be guided based on what our children need to learn? Now both sides are pandering to zealots -- and it's not just our children who will suffer from it, but our Constitution, as well.

This is one of the most depressing political developments I've seen recently. Shameful. Another reason I'm glad I no longer identify as a Democrat.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

NYC Theater Report - Winter 2005-2006

Existence happens at the edge of things. Where two concepts or people or circumstances or species come into contact with each other – whether conflicting or complementary –we can more fully experience the sense of both otherness and connection that becomes apparent when we find our consciousness at the edges of things. This is where we find fear and guilt, joy and ecstasy. This is where the fragility of life, and its preciousness, become clear.

One of the purposes of art is to make this landscape more visible to us, to call to our attention to the collisions and mergings taking place all around us. In Manhattan, itself at the edge of the continent, it’s almost impossible not to be overwhelmed by existence. That’s why so many creators (and devotees) of art have brought themselves to New York – to labor where life is brought closer to the surface. The city roils with the constant confluence of ideas and money and personalities and cultures.

This thought – of the edgy nature of life, of how it can hang by a thread – came to me as I spent the last week of 2005 and the first week of 2006 (on the edges of the years, coincidentally) in New York City, experiencing the handiwork of New York’s theater artists as they made their attempts to illuminate life’s deeper messages through drama: the edge of life and death in “Miss Witherspoon” and the edge of celebrity and ordinariness in “The Little Dog Laughed.” The edge that defines the social filter between the things we say and the things we don’t say, in Pinter’s “Celebration” and “The Room,” two one-acts at the Atlantic Theater Company. The edge between sanity and delusion in “Souvenir,” and between one rung and another on the evolutionary ladder in Edward Albee’s “Seascape.”

Unfortunately, only a handful of what I saw has any chance to still be running even three months from now. Some of it deserves to go, but some that have closed or will close soon merit better fates. In some instances, audience interest might support a longer run, but new shows have booked the space, so a good show must either close or make the leap to a new theater. In other instances, shows I rather enjoyed probably won’t have what it takes to extend their runs.

In order to increase the utility – and brevity – of this report, I will focus most on shows you might have a chance to see if you’re going to New York in the next six months. Then I’ll turn attention (but a little less of it) to those shows that have closed or are closing soon. For shows that deserve to close, a smattering of attention will have to do.

“Abigail’s Party”
Film director Mike Leigh’s early work takes place in a suburban London subdivision that shares some aspects with TV’s Wisteria Lane. Beverly, a housewife played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, is certainly desperate enough. This evening she is hosting a small neighborhood gathering that isn’t so much a party as it is a ruse to assemble a combination audience/collection of victims. Beverly bosses and cajoles and whines and ignores and bullies and yammers at everyone who comes within earshot – all the while pushing drinks and unappetizing snacks on her guests: new residents Tony and Angela, and recently-divorced Sue, whose daughter Abigail is having the only real party happening that night. The title deliberately misleads us – all the fun is offstage.

And in the audience – because even though none of the characters appear to really enjoy themselves (especially Beverly’s real estate agent husband, Laurence), the play delivers a lot of laughs. Many of the funniest bits are tinged with schadenfreude, as we watch characters’ baser natures rise to the surface when Beverly stretches out her harpy’s wings.

Beverly pushes the liquor hard, and the inhibitions start dropping. Of course, these are British inhibitions we’re talking about, so it takes a lot of drinks to get them to drop any appreciable distance. I was put in mind of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff,” with the older couple hosting a younger couple, drinks being consumed in rapid succession, old resentments rising to the surface…

Although there are only a few minor references in the text that tie the show to any specific era and my guess is that on the first page of the play it says “Time: The Present,” director Scott Elliott has taken “present” to mean the 1977 of the play’s first production. The set is a spot-on rendition of what one might find in a 70s issue of “Better Homes & Gardens.” Kudos to Derek McLane for an elegant use of space, with a unified view of the home – giving Elliott the ability to stage action in the living room, the kitchen just upstage of it and the interior hallway and entry left and right.

The performances are quite good, especially the wonderful Lisa Emery. Jennifer Jason Leigh was entertaining, but I always saw an actress playing a role, not a character experiencing life. That’s too bad, because Beverly is the shriveled little heart of this play.

The edge explored here is the one between self-esteem and self-loathing. Beverly is proud that she has caught herself a successful man, and can afford to spend her days drinking and smoking and putting cheese cubes on toothpicks and sticking them into grapefruit halves turned upside down on a plate as a serving technique. But she’s so deeply insecure that she needs to show off her possessions to remind herself how worthy she must be, and bully her guests to prove to herself that her way is the right way. She ends up vacillating between preening and pouncing and her guests never get to feel comfortable. Fortunately, Leigh’s text and Elliott’s direction succeed in making Beverly a character who, while pathetically self-centered, is actually quite entertaining.

“Almost, Maine”
Ah, love. Mysterious. Magical. Confounding. Frustrating. Transforming.

In this recently-opened production consisting of nearly a dozen vignettes which all take place on the same long, cold, night in the far, far north of Maine, we get to see love and its effects from many different points to view.

(Warning: “Almost, Maine” is not meant for a hip, New York intellectual crowd. Though author John Cariani certainly gives his audience a fair amount to think about, the show is designed to please a mass market audience who want to walk out of a show feeling warm and uplifted and entertained. It’s a “date play.”)

Each of the vignettes plays with reality, setting up odd circumstances – but which the characters deal with in a very straightforward manner. At the local bar, The Moose Paddy, the special on this night is free drinks if you’re sad. When a woman tells a man that what she’s holding in a paper sack are the pieces of her heart, he isn’t shocked. Instead, in true Maine, capable-guy fashion, he offers to see if he can fix it for her. When the other shoe drops – it literally drops.

One of the best vignettes involves a woman who shows up at the doorstep of her long-time boyfriend’s house in order to bring back all the love he had given her, since he’s obviously not going to propose. “It’s in the car,” she says. It’s a lot. She hauls in a huge pile of sacks, ostensibly brimming over with the love he gave her. Of course, in true breakup form, she wants hers back. After much delay, he finally relents. When she sees the amount of love she’d given him, she’s flabbergasted. But her shock turns to surprise and delight in a sweet, Hallmark moment.

There are many such sweet moments, and many funny lines. The show could stand to move along a bit faster, perhaps by removing one or two of the less successful bits early on. But I found it charming. It will likely be on the board at TKTS regularly early in its run, but I think it has the possibility to build terrific word of mouth among tourists. The people in the two-fer line don’t want to see family heartbreak or hyper-intellectual plays of ideas. They don’t generally want their thoughts provoked. They go to TKTS because they couldn’t get into “Wicked” or “Spamalot” and want an alternative. They ask the barkers handing out flyers about different shows. If they hear “It’s an amazing play about two brothers, one of whom is developmentally disabled and was sexually abused by his junkie father, who later ends up killing…” vs. “It’s pretty good. It’s about this small town in Maine where people are falling in love with each other and learning about love and it’s very funny…” I can tell you where the bridge and tunnel crowd is going to end up.

“Bush is Bad”
The title says it all. If you religiously watch Fox News, think John McCain is a leftist or cling to the hope that our current President is more richly endowed in the top story than he’s letting on, stay away. After all, when the reminder at the top of the show to turn off cell phones and unwrap candies also includes a warning that “anyone who thinks they might take offense as we ridicule that smirking chimp who currently occupies the White House should probably leave right now,” you know something’s up.

This small review (three singers and their piano accompaniment) attempts to skewer not just the President, but Dick Cheney, members of the Cabinet, Republican members of Congress – in fact, every person who voted for George Bush. Witness their opening number, “How can 59 million people be so dumb?” (Which was the headline in a London tabloid the day after the 2004 election.) There were several very funny numbers, especially a trio of tunes that paid tribute to “great” composers of the past: Robert Schumann, Kurt Weill…and my favorite, Andrew Lloyd Webber, via their rendition of “Scooter Libby Superstar.” Brilliant. (But unfortunately, NOT on the CD I purchased at the show.)

The final number uses Bush quotes as the lyrics for “In His Own Words.” The chorus goes: “Families is where our nation finds hope, where our wings take dream. If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure. It is a time of sorrow and sadness when we lose the loss of a life. Put food on your family. Make the pie higher.”

A nice enough evening, but you can get better (and more balanced) political humor out of “The Daily Show.”

According to the cast, in the villages of South Africa, “when one person sings, everybody sings. When one person drums, everybody drums.” That explains the fact that when you enter the theater for “Drumstruck,” there is a two-foot tall African drum on every seat. Over the course of the next 90 minutes, you are treated to a performance by 10-12 energetic drummers and singers and given the opportunity to play along with them.

Although I was looking forward to more of a lesson on the basics of African rhythms, the cast handled the interactive segments quite well. Very few words were needed for the cast to explain when we were supposed to hit our drums. His drum lessons were practically a dance, as he mimed the moves we were to follow. Different halves of the audience would occasionally play different parts, and we always played along with the cast, which kept the beat even and driving forward.

If that sounds like fun to you, it probably will be. If it doesn’t, don’t take the chance that “Drumstruck” will be able to win you over.

“In The Continuum”
This show is getting wonderful reviews, but I hated it. Not because it was necessarily bad, it just happened to be the opposite of what I was in the mood for. I enjoy going to a show knowing little about what it’s about; I like to see how a production goes about communicating to someone who has minimal prior knowledge of the nature of the show. I don’t know what I thought “In The Continuum” would be, but I know I wasn’t interested in watching two women -- one an African-American teenager living in South Central, the other a middle-aged African woman living in Zimbabwe – deal with a positive HIV diagnosis. With lots of screaming. It’s clearly a valuable story, it just didn’t hit me that day. (To be honest, though, even if I had been in the perfect mood, I don’t think I would have liked it. It was a little disjointed and strident, and I think the disjointed nature of the text makes it hard for audiences to connect with the characters.)

“Slava’s Snowshow”
This has been running in New York for several years, and will probably run for several more. (It begins its San Francisco run in March.) Slava Polunin is a legendary Russian clown, but this show has more in common with Cirque du Soleil than it does with Bozo or Krusty. Almost entirely wordless, “Snowshow” relies deeply on archetypes -- and therefore an assumption that we can understand the sort of motives and desires archetypal characters may exhibit. Much is exaggerated here: the joy is rapturous and the struggles are monumental – the first scene begins with a clown walking on stage, a noose around his neck.

That should be your first clue that this is not necessarily a nice clown show. It’s loud – extremely loud at times – and you may be buffeted by winds, squirted with water, trod upon and toyed with emotionally. So be warned. (Don’t worry, it’s nothing you can’t handle.) But there’s a definite dark streak to the clown’s interactions with front row patrons.

That said, “Slava’s Snowshow” is quite a spectacle: celebratory and communal and even a bit awe-inspiring.

“Beauty of the Father”
The new play by 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz deals with the uproar that takes place when a daughter comes to live with her artist father after more than a decade of estrangement. The reason given is that the mother was so upset at her husband’s sexual betrayals that she ran him off and forbade any contact with his daughter. Mom has died and the daughter, now in her late teens or early 20s, has come to Spain to meet Dad, who at the moment is living with a woman who takes care of him emotionally and intellectually, and an Arab immigrant with whom he dallies sexually and who is able to remain in the country because the female housemate has consented to marry him.

Unfortunately, none of it felt very true, and not just because the Spanish artistic polymath and martyr Federico Garcia Lorca appears and converses with Dad. I never bought the relationship between father and daughter, or between dad and his housemate. (Dad and the Arab boy I get, but that was primarily sexual, and sexual heat is easier to write and portray than emotional intimacy.)

Through February 19th at Manhattan Theater Club.

“Celebration” and “The Room”
When I saw my first Pinter play (“The Caretaker” at The Roundabout), I was unimpressed. When I saw his first play, “The Room” at the Atlantic Theater Company, I began to see why he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

On the surface, “The Room” is the sort of play I don’t usually like, since it’s not a terribly intricate plot and nothing terribly funny or thrilling happens: a woman (Rose) sits in a room fixing breakfast for her husband, who is completely silent for the first 20 minutes, then leaves. When he’s gone, a handful of strange visitors – her landlord, a blind black man and an odd couple (not Nathan and Matthew) who seem to have been told the room is for rent. Their interactions are disturbing to the woman, and unsatisfying for the visitors, and underneath the very ordinary language lurk strange motivations and otherworldly rules seem to apply. The edge Rose’s experiences embodies could be the one between life and death – is the room a sort of purgatory? A place where everyone else gets to come and go, but which she never steps foot out of?

As impressed as I was by “The Room,” “Celebration,” the second of these two one-acts, just knocked me out. Two groups of people are seated in banquettes at a fancy restaurant; one couple is celebrating the husband’s promotion, while two other couples are marking the birthday of one of their party. Not much happens, but so much does, at least under the surface. It’s been said that Pinter can take subtext and make it text. Here, it feels as if he has reversed that: you don’t have to look behind the words to find the barbed edges. All the cruelty is out in the open. What’s hidden is the characters’ awareness of it. Things that would precipitate slapped faces or storming out of the room -- or at the very least red-faced shock – are here taken as everyday utterances. The result is hysterically funny. In lesser hands, “Celebration” could come across as pretentious claptrap, but with the amazing cast and the able direction of Neil Pepe, it’s a production you ought not to miss – if you can make it to the Atlantic before Saturday.

“Five Course Love”
This one you can miss. Unpalatable.

“The Little Dog Laughed”
See it if you can. It might be extended past its scheduled February 26 closing date, but I wouldn’t risk it. Go now.

The heart of the story is Diane, a very powerful, very capable Hollywood agent, played with delicious expertise by Julie White. Nothing gets past Diane. She knows every twist and turn of the road. Which is a good thing, considering the speed she travels it and the unsavory motives of her fellow motorists. Diane is pragmatic, no-nonsense and incredibly blunt. At one point, another character asks her to give her word on something. With only the slightest touch of sarcasm she consents: “I give you my word as an entertainment industry professional.”

Diane’s client of the moment is Mitchell, a movie star to be; that is, if he can keep his homosexuality under wraps. Problem is, Mitchell hasn’t even accepted his sexuality himself – but the fact that he’s falling in love with the rent boy he hired just might bring it to his attention. Problem is, it might also bring it to the attention of the movie-going public, who like their stars straight or deeply in the closet, at least if the star hopes to ever have a franchise to call his own.

The show is sharp and biting from start to finish. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane has obviously spent some time around the Hollywood crowd – how else can one explain his acid description (through Diane) of players using the ordering of salads as a power game? There are dozens of laugh out loud lines. One of my favorites was when Mitchell and his boy toy are discussing first times and find out it happened for Mitchell in the Boy Scouts. “I hear that a lot,” the rent boy says. “Yes,” Mitchell replies, “the merit badge that dare not speak its name.”

The story moves forward rapidly, continues to surprise well into the second act, and supports a theme that once again addresses the concept of interesting stuff happening at the edges of things. In this case, it’s the border between celebrity and ordinariness. What is Mitchell willing to give up to be ordinary, to be able to love whomever he chooses? What will he give up to be a star? What morals must Diane compromise to continue working in the upper echelons of the Hollywood power pyramid? What lies do we have to tell our ids so our egos can get what they want? It’s rich territory, and “The Little Dog Laughed” explores it quite ably.

I’d quibble with the casting (neither of the men were entirely believable, either as movie star or rent boy), but other than that, my favorite show of the trip.

“Miss Witherspoon”
Closed, unfortunately. Christopher Durang (“Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You”) has written a charming and diverting play about a woman who is trapped in the endless cycle of birth and rebirth – only she doesn’t want to be. She just wants to rest. Unfortunately, she keeps finding herself in the afterlife. Or rather, the between-lives. There she learns that people are basically allowed to have the kind of afterlife they’ve come to expect. Jewish people, who don’t believe in a heaven or hell, get an afterlife that’s rather like being under general anesthetic. “Ooh, I want that!” she says.

Cute, but as I said, closed.

Wrap the fish in it. John Tartaglia (“Avenue Q”) leads a cast of eager and capable singers in a review that raised the curtain before they had a decent script.

“The Trip to Bountiful”
Closing soon (February 19), but a lovely production. A woman nearing the end of her life wants nothing more than to see the old homestead one more time. Unfortunately, her daughter-in-law will have none of it, and her son is so spineless, he won’t step in. So she makes an escape. I didn’t want to like it at first, but it won me over. Lois Smith is amazing and Hallie Foote (daughter of playwright Horton Foote) was a revelation. No nepotism here – daddy’s little girl can act.

An Edward Albee play I’d never heard of. Its original run in 1975 was only 63 performances. This revival never caught on either, but I had a wonderful time at the theater that evening.

All the action takes place on a tiny bit of dunes at the shore. The couple who have spread their beach blanket on the sand are Nancy and Charlie, a husband and wife on the verge of retirement, discussing what to do with the rest of their lives. Nancy wants to see as many beaches as she can; Charlie wants to “settle in.” They bicker with each other, but always with an undercurrent not of resentment, but affection. Their interactions are funny and real and touching, and marvelously performed by Frances Sternhagen and George Grizzard.

Things take a very interesting turn when Nancy and Charlie are joined on the beach by Sarah and Leslie. Sarah and Leslie also speak in a distinctive Albee-esque manner, snipping at each other in the way married couples often do. But Sarah and Leslie aren’t human. They are some sort of amphibious lizard that have grown uncomfortable living in the sea and are contemplating a move to dry land. Which makes it incredibly funny. An exasperated “Yes, Sarah” is hysterical when it comes out of the mouth of an amphibian. The creatures’ ability to communicate the clash of cultures between earth-dwellers and sea-dwellers makes the second act even funnier than the first – and the first act was pretty funny.

Some reviewers feel the play is timely because it addresses the issue of evolution. I don’t think it’s necessarily about biological evolution. If it’s about the evolution of anything, it’s the evolution of intellect. Or even consciousness. I think it’s likely that Albee would rather talk about how we improve ourselves than he would about human origins. It’s not a play about where we came from, it’s a play about where we’re going.

Florence Foster Jenkins loved to sing. She believed herself to be “that most rara of avis – the pure coloratura.” She claimed to have perfect pitch. Problem is, she couldn’t carry a tune in a supertanker.

Still, she didn’t have trouble getting people to look past her delusion and flock to her concerts for the privilege of being in on one of the greatest “in” jokes of Manhattan in the 30s. Jenkins was a bit of an heiress, and held a recital each year at the Four Seasons Hotel in benefit of her favorite charities. They invariably sold out. At the very pinnacle of her career, she was the star of a concert at Carnegie Hall, which sold out in two hours.

We meet Miss Jenkins through the eyes of her accompanist, a man who needed a steady gig more than he needed his integrity as a musician. He leads us through the years of the collaboration, interspersed with Miss Jenkins’s yowling renditions of some of opera’s most taxing arias. Recordings were made of Miss Jenkins, and I have read that Judy Kaye does quite an accurate imitation. If that’s true, it’s no wonder audiences were said to have stopped their mouths with handkerchiefs and even left the room in order to prevent inappropriate laughter. (Miss Jenkins attributed this sort of behavior to the emotion, which overcomes the audience upon hearing her angelic warblings.)

Judy Kaye (a Tony winner for “The Phantom of the Opera,” all those thousands of performances ago) must have found it a tremendous challenge to sing that badly. I would imagine that years of vocal training have ingrained in her the need to follow the music, to listen to the orchestra or accompanist and follow their pitch. So working through an entire aria with at least 60-70% wrong notes while a pianist is right next to you playing the right music at the right tempo must be incredibly difficult. Really quite an amazing performance. Let’s hope she’s nominated for a Tony and gets to do a number at the Awards.

Welcome to the Rational Feast

Hello. So glad to have you. Welcome. The Rational Feast is intended to be a banquet of ideas and opinion grounded, I hope, in pragmatism. I shall endeavor to make the entries heartfelt, honest and entertaining.

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