Sunday, December 30, 2007

"Peter and Jerry"

Wow.

If I wasn’t suffering so from a cold, I could go on and on about the amazing evening of theater that is Edward Albee’s “Peter and Jerry.” (Unfortunately, as I write these words, it is having its final performance at the Second Stage Theatre.)

Albee’s first produced play, “The Zoo Story” composes the second half of the evening. For the hour prior to intermission, Albee has written a new work designed to complement and set up the action that takes place in “The Zoo Story.”

Never having seen that previous work, I can’t say how I might have reacted to the new aspect of the work. In fact, I have the strong desire to step into a parallel universe where I can experience the night all over again, this time having first seen “The Zoo Story.” I must admit I felt a bit lost (and toyed with) during the first act. Peter (Bill Pullman) sits on a sofa in an Upper West Side apartment. His wife walks in. “We should talk,” she says. And they do. About nothing. About important things. About tragic things. About memories. About connection. About being alive. Being human.

But it’s not until the second act, when Peter has taken himself to Central Park to read on a bench and is confronted there by Jerry, a rather compelling (but obviously touched) semi-vagrant hustler who has a story he wants to tell to someone. And Peter is closest at hand.

For the next hour, Jerry entertains and harangues Peter, delving deeper into the latter’s psyche than any high-priced Manhattan therapist could ever do. The shocking and tragic denouement is still here, but with Albee’s new text, it has even more impact than I imagine “The Zoo Story” could ever have on its own.

A pity you won’t have the chance to see it, if for no other reason than to experience Dallas Robert’s absolutely staggering performance as Jerry. It is probably the single best individual performance I have seen on stage since Jefferson Mayes’s Tony-winning turn in “I Am My Own Wife.”

"Trumpery"

I shall be brief, mostly because the show has already closed. “Trumpery” is the story of a seminal moment in history: the publication of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” in which he first presented his theory of evolution and natural selection – and thereby stirred up a hornet’s nest that buzzes still.

Michael Cristofer is stunning as the old man himself, as hesitant as his stammer to publish his theory until he receives an essay from a younger colleague who has stumbled upon the same conclusions about natural selection as the means of the transmutation of species. Darwin’s friends George Hooker and Thomas Huxley convince him that he must forgo reticence and publish his findings or risk losing his place in history.

Overall, the play is well-done: wonderfully-acted and staged (Santo Loquasto comes through once more with a lovely set), but a bit stodgily-directed. There are times when the play seems to spin its wheels.

"Cymbeline"

I wonder what the Bard himself would think, had it been him instead of me planted in the seventh row center of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, watching this late romance of his being played out in its vast confines. Would he have loved the elements of spectacle enabled by the high fly spaces and hydraulics (not to mention budgets), or would he have felt something human and approachable was lost amid the amazing costumes sets and effects?

“Cymbeline” is one of Shakespeare’s least-produced plays, but it’s certainly not for lack of action. Love, betrayal, jealousy, intrigue – it’s all here. And though it’s beautifully-stage and acted with energy and intelligence (with special kudos to Martha Plimpton, John Pankow and Adam Dannheisser, less for the one-dimensional Phylicia Rashad), it left me feeling chilly and unsatisfied. (Though the glory of Shakespeare’s language still comes shining through.)

"November"

David Mamet’s latest, which takes place entirely within the Oval Office, is sort of a cross between his own “Wag The Dog” and “South Park,” resulting in an offspring that resembles a “Doonesbury”-like comic strip brought to life.

If you’re expecting Aaron Sorkin-like attempts at verisimilitude in recreating the inner workings of the halls of power, you’re on line for the wrong show. “November” is satirical farce, giving us a president of unprecedented venality and stupefying ignorance, combined with an unquenchable lust for power and money. With Nathan Lane as president Charles Smith, we get a glimpse of what the world might be like if crooked producer Max Bialystock were given the keys to the White House.

In lesser hands than Mamet’s, “November” could easily devolve into a cheap frat skit, taking potshots at easy political prey. But thanks to Mamet’s talents (he’s long been one of my favorite writers), “November” succeeds on two levels: it makes us laugh, and it makes us despair at the thought that the men and women who ascend to positions of power – though not nearly as funny as the characters here – are probably no less venal, and perhaps even more so.

The story takes place during the closing days of a presidential election. President Smith is way behind in the polls, and his party (he is never identified as either Republican of Democrat) has given up even trying to win. Smith is being encouraged to accept the coming defeat and slip off quietly into the sunset. His lawyer (Dylan Baker, showing brilliant comic chops) has to repeatedly remind Smith that the country hates him and wants him out of office as soon as possible. “Why?” Smith asks. “Because you fucked up everything you touched,” his henchman replies – to sustained applause from the audience at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

Unfortunately, Smith is so broke that his presidential library fund has only $4000, and he is advised that if he can’t win the election, he can at least sell a few pardons.

I won’t delve much deeper here, because Mamet is a great storyteller and there are several wonderful surprises in “November,” but I will tell you it involves the pardon of Thanksgiving turkeys, a lesbian speechwriter (a wonderful turn from Laurie Metcalf, best-known for her work on “Roseanne”), same-sex marriage, Indian casinos, rumors of Iranian missile strikes and lots and lots of swearing.

The show is in previews and could use a bit of tweaking, but overall it’s a wonderfully entertaining night of theater. If only I could get over the nagging thought that, despite its farcical nature, it’s much closer to the truth than any of us would wish it to be.

"Die Mommie Die!"

Families don’t come more dysfunctional than the Arden-Sussman clan, especially when they are headed by a matriarch like Angela Arden, a boozy, washed-up chanteuse and TV star whose skyrocketing career began to sputter, fizzle and eventually tumble back to Earth when her twin sister died under mysterious circumstances.

“Die Mommie Die!” was written by Charles Busch (writer of the excellent “Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”), and he takes the leading role of Angela Arden. Busch is one of the best drag artists currently working, but one has to like drag for this show to work. “Die Mommie Die!” is a melodrama featuring buckets of bitchiness, resentments and revenge, gay subplots, murderous children and trailerloads of trashy behavior. (Even though the story takes place in Beverly Hills.)

I’d seen two of Busch’s previous works, which I enjoyed much more. “Die Mommie Die!” (adapted from Busch’s film of the same name) however, is only for the diehard camp/drag fan.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"Is He Dead?"

It's one of those stories you'd expect in a movie -- a previously-unknown manuscript by a famous author is discovered years after his death. Except that's not the story of the play, it's the story of the discovery of the play. The play was written by Mark Twain in 1898, when he was 60 and broke. It was to have been produced at Bram Stoker's London theater, but the venue burned down and Twain stuck the play in a drawer, where it languished until 2002.

Adapted by David Ives, the play has been modernized somewhat (cut from three acts to two, and tightening the comic screws a bit), but it's still Twain's work, and has a very 19th century feel to it.

The setup is simple: a painter in 1840 France comes to the realization that his work will be worth far more if he has shuffled off his mortal coil. So with the help of a few friends, he fakes his death, and creates a fictional twin sister who handles his estate -- and the millions that come to it now that he is a celebrated (thanks to his demise) artist. Norbert Leo Butz (who was brilliant in "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels") is very funny here -- especially in drag as the twin sister, which is most of the show -- and is ably supported by a cast with serious comic chops.

Just remember that "Is He Dead?" is a very old-fashioned sort of play. There is lots of falling in love, mistaken identities, physical humor -- and very little plausability. It's broad and silly and ludicrous -- and loads of fun.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

"Mary Poppins"

Disney does know how to churn them out. A visitor to New York can see not just "Mary Poppins," but also "The Lion King" and "The Little Mermaid." "Tarzan" and "Beauty and the Beast" closed relatively recently.

If you really need to have a dose of Disney, and nothing else will do, the production of "Mary Poppins" actually has quite a lot going for it. First of all, the show is based on one of Disney's best films ever. It features some of the best Disney songs: "Spoonful of Sugar," "Feed the Birds," "Chim-Chim-Cheree" and "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

But in adapting "Mary Poppins" for the stage, Disney somehow managed to take a great story and make it both limp and leaden. Part of the problem is that the new songs written for the stage are mostly forgettable, and the producers are rushing too fast from one number to another to let the show find its own legs.

However, you can forgive a lot when the numbers they are rushing to are as impressively staged as they are here. "Mary Poppins" won just one Tony (it was nominated for seven), for Best Scenic Design, an award that is richly-deserved. The sets are indeed stunning. The Banks's house, the rooftops of London, the interiors of the bank and the area around St. Paul's Cathedral are grander than anything I think I have ever seen on stage. I won't spoil the surprises for you, but count on lots of big set pieces, efficient, elegant movement between scenes, and some amazing staging effects.

I didn't love the show, but I'd still recommend it, especially if you have kids -- or just want to be blown away yourself. It's a giant, loud, multi-colored ball of fun -- that unfortunately misses its mark too often.

Monday, December 24, 2007

"Doris to Darlene"

...to don't. Dull, dull, dull.

Christmas Eve, 2007


4:52 p.m. Time-Warner Center, Columbus Circle.

"The Seafarer"

Conor McPherson writes Irish ghost stories ("The Weir" "Shining City"), and his latest is no exception, though it is the first play of his I have seen. "The Seafarer" is set in an intensely shabby Dublin apartment where Sharky Harkin (played with delicious restraint by David Morse) has returned to his father's home after a chauffeuring job in Lahinch went wrong. Sharky is also trying to go on the wagon, as his drinking is preventing him from being a sailor.

Unfortunately, the Harkin household is not the most supportive place to get dry, especially on Christmas Eve. Patriarch Richard Sharkey has gone recently blind (could it be the illegal poteen he sometimes gets from one of the neighbors?), but that only means he has to rely on friends and family to bring him the prodigious amounts of whiskey and beer he downs each day. As Christmas Eve morning dawns, Sharky is cleaning up the mess from the previous night's bingeing by his elder brother and their friend Ivan (brilliant sloppiness from Conleth Hill). When Sharky is upstairs, Richard and Ivan scurry to find the dregs from any bottles that were left.

The story doesn't really kick into gear until another friend of the family, another (surprise!) alcoholic, Nicky (Sean Mahon), arrives with Mr. Lockhart (the menacing Ciaran Hinds) in tow. Mr. Lockhart, we soon learn, is Satan himself, come to collect the soul Sharky promised him many years ago.

But the story isn't really the draw here. The main reason to see "The Seafarer" is the crackling dialogue delivered by a truly world-class ensemble. Stage acting doesn't get a whole lot better than this.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Saturday Random Video

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1:00 p.m. Sixth Avenue. A flock of Grandfathers Frost. Grandfather Frost (Ded Moroz, or Дед Мороз in cyrillic) is Russia's Santa Claus, an old bearded guy who brings presents. Russia TV unleashed an army of them on midtown as a promotional stunt.

"The Receptionist"

Have her put you into voice mail.

The latest offering at Manhattan Theatre Club, producers of some of my favorite contemporary plays ("Doubt" "Wonder of the World" "Fuddy Meers" "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" "Proof") wants to be a powerful metaphor on authority, and how our culture is allowing the horrific to become mundane.

But when a 70-minute show has you looking at your watch, you've got real problems.

"The Homecoming"

Ah, Pinter. The master of subtext. In other words, what's being said is only one level of what's really going on. In this production of Pinter's 1964 play, what is presented is a family of sociopaths who can (and this is the frightening thing about sociopaths) occasionally pass for ordinary people. Much of the dialogue is simple and plain, often redundant and delivered mostly with a flat affect - or at least a sense of ordinariness: this is the sort of thing people say all the time.

So when the deep resentments and tales of violent interludes are brought into the conversation, one is first tempted to dismiss them as lies or exaggerations. Surely no sane, ordinary person could speak of such things in such a cool, detached manner. This is how we discover that what seems like an everyday working class family who have lost their mum, is in fact a collection of unrestrained hooligans turned completely in on themselves and their own concerns.

The cast in this production is uniformly excellent. Raul Esparza, Michael McKean, James Frain and Gareth Saxe each acquit their roles with tremendous skill. But Ian McShane (star of perhaps my favorite television series of all time, "Deadwood") stands out for his ability to communicate the subtext of menace. It's hard to look away from him. That said, I don't think he would be nearly as effective without the balancing power of Eve Best's portrayal of Ruth. Best exhibits a kind of understated strength that shows that either a) she can handle this batch of sociopaths pretty well, thank you very much, or b) she's a bit of a sociopath herself.

If you dig Pinter, don't miss it. It's rare you will find such a talented cast in such a terrific production.

Friday, December 21, 2007

"Xanadu"

If, after the intellectual gymnastics required by "Rock 'n' Roll," the schoolboy attention required by "The Farnsworth Invention," or the menacing familial kerfuffles of "August: Osage County, you are looking for a giant bouffant of cotton candy as a sort of palate refresher, you couldn't do much better than "Xanadu." Yes, that "Xanadu," the Olivia Newton-John film that is widely-regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. Here's how Netflix describes it:

"Concerned about angst-ridden artist Sonny Malone (Michael Beck), Zeus dispatches winsome muse Kira (Olivia Newton-John) to Earth to inspire the painter. Kira hooks Sonny up with wealthy Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly) -- a musician Kira buoyed decades earlier -- and the trio revamps a vacant building into the world's coolest disco roller rink."

That's pretty much what happens onstage, except Kerry Butler plays the Olivia Newton-John role, Cheyenne Jackson steps into Michael Beck's role, and Tony Roberts fills in for Gene Kelly. All three have serious comic chops (especially Cheyenne Jackson) that, when combined with a smart script (filled with generation-crossing pop culture references) from Douglas Carter Beane ("The Little Dog Laughed" and "As Bees In Honey Drown), make for a 90-minute long smile plastered to the faces of everyone in the audience. That's not even taking into account the show-stealing antics of New York comediennes Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa, who turn the ELO-penned "Evil Woman" into the highlight of the night.

It's silly, it's splashy, it has more mirror balls than all of downtown New York had in the late 70s -- but it's a helluva a good time.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Friday Random Video

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1:46 a.m. Times Square.

"August: Osage County"

In the years I have been doing these reports on my New York trips -- and especially the last four, when I began blogging them -- I have focused less on trying to write full reviews, and more on creating capsule reports to give you a flavor for the show and the information you need to decide for yourself whether you'd like to see the production.

Last night's production, however, was so rich, so multi-layered and so complex that any attempt on my part to make sense of it in a few hundred words is patently ridiculous. Apart from the fact that I lack the deep theatrical background (there's just too much of the classic theatrical canon I have never seen or read) to construct such a criticism, I'd need to see "August: Osage County" at least twice more to even begin to plumb the depths of familial relationships Tracy Letts has created in this landmark new play that many critics are predicting may become an American classic, standing proudly beside the best work of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller.

So let me just say this: go. Even if you can't make it to Broadway before this closes (which, unfortunately, will be sometime before September, when "Billy Elliot: The Musical" takes over the stage of the Imperial Theatre), see it when it comes to wherever you are.

It's not an uplifting evening: the family in question has myriad problems. Dad is a once-honored, now-failed poet who drinks. A lot. Mom pops pretty much anything that comes in pill form. Their three daughters are mostly estranged from each other (and their husbands and children) -- but they all come together when dad goes missing after the first scene.

Unlike Beckett or Pinter, where much of the real action happens in subtext, little is hidden here. All the vitriol is on full public display. All the nasty things one might think about a family member who has let you down or disappointed you or failed (in your mind) to take adequate account of your needs are spoken out loud here. Nothing is held back. (And in fact, reaches its peak when the eldest daughter tells mom to "Eat the fish, bitch.") At one point, four (I think -- might have been five) groups of family are in four different spaces of the big old house (in Todd Rosenthal's multi-tiered set), conducting four different simultaneous arguments. It's a fugue of dysfunction.

Fortunately, there's also quite a lot of humor happening here. (Plus the comforting fact that almost anyone can experience "August: Osage County" and say, "at least my family's not THAT bad.") It's a good sign, I think, that the producers have chosen to sell t-shirts featuring some of the show's best lines: "You have to be smart to be complicated." "All women look better with makeup." It gives you a sense that the show has plenty of good ones. And it does. Here are just a few of the many great lines that didn't make the t-shirt cut:

- "Do me the favor of knowing when I'm demeaning you."
- "Thank god we can't see the future -- we'd never get out of bed."
- "You never know when someone might need a kidney."
- "We fucked over the Indians for THIS?" (referring to Oklahoma)

And of course, the aforementioned "Eat the fish, bitch."

Over the course of three acts (and three hours), the story builds and gets more complex and more tragic, revealing surprises to almost the very last scene.

If you can go, "August: Osage County" is not to be missed.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

"The Farnsworth Invention"

I'll confess this upfront. I'm an Aaron Sorkin fan. "The West Wing," at least until he left the show, was a show I hated to see end each week. I wanted to spend more time with those characters. I have no idea why his follow-up, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" never found an audience. It was very smart and addressed big issues. Oops, guess THAT was why it never found an audience. "Sports Night" was also a terrific, but short-lived show.

So I stepped into The Music Box this afternoon fully prepared to enjoy the story of how David Sarnoff basically stole television from inventor Philo Farnsworth. And did.

Others -- you, for instance -- may not appreciate a certain lecture-y quality that seeps out from this densely (but elegantly)-packaged history lesson, seen through the eyes of two titans: Sarnoff, the Russian-born exiled Jew who created modern broadcasting, and Farnsworth, the Mormon farm boy who saw the key concepts necessary to making possible perhaps the most influential technological breakthrough of the 20th century. (Hank Azaria plays Sarnoff with unapologetic ambition, and Jimmi Simpson does good work as a simple genius, overwhelmed by powers far beyond his experience.)

But me? I love the quick repartee of Sorkin's characters, the efficiency of his exposition, the richness of his characters. It's not a great show, and it's not for everyone (and it probably won't survive long on Broadway), but it tells an amazing story -- and it's going to be the perfect thing for high school drama departments that need shows with big casts that shed light on important moments in history.

And no matter what opinion you may hold of the "vast wasteland" of "57 (or 557) channels and nothin ' on" that is broadcasting today, it's impossible to argue that the introduction of television marks a watershed in human history, and watching its birth pangs is pretty darn compelling.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Rock 'n' Roll"

Tom Stoppard's newest has been getting mixed reviews. Critics mostly seem to like it (one said it is "arguably Stoppard's best play"), but audiences (at least those who care enough to post their opinions on discussion boards) are more skeptical. Getting a ticket is pretty easy, even at deep discounts.

After seeing the production tonight, I can see why. The play itself is terrific -- filled with Stoppard's wit delivered by characters that are passionate and fiery -- but with a certain British restraint. The story is rich and important. (And should probably be considered in tandem with Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia" trilogy -- one being about the birth of communism, the other about its death.)

But this production, for many reasons, never lets the power and passion of the play's text really come through to the audience. The cast, though capable (and including Brian Cox, Sinead Cusack and Rufus Sewell), never come together as a true ensemble. The direction is flaccid and impotent, denying not only the passions of the characters, but the menace of totalitarianism that hangs over virtually every scene. We're supposed to be frightened by what Communists clinging to control are capable of -- but we aren't. And the staging (imported, I understand, almost entirely from the National Theatre production in London last year) doesn't seem to fit very well in the Jacobs Theatre. The balance seemed off.

On the positive side, I will say the of all the actors, Rufus Sewell brought the most to his role. (Good thing, too, since his Jan is the heart and soul of "Rock 'n' Roll" -- the idealist who loves the freedom and mad release rock music delivers.)

By the second act, though, I was able to put the production's shortcomings into the background and let the power of Stoppard's words do the work he intended them to do. I loved the arguments about the nature of consciousness and the mind-body (or rather mind-brain) duality.

From what I read, there are many other plays coming up this trip that I will likely recommend more, but if you are a fan of Stoppard's on any level, I don't think "Rock 'n' Roll" is a play you should miss.

The Tuesday Random Video

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The R train. Rush hour. Midtown.

Monday, December 17, 2007

At the Mercy of New York

Sometimes a plan does NOT come together. At the end of our first day in New York, our plan had been to have dinner at a swanky restaurant downtown. Specifically, Eleven Madison Park, which had once been a good but relatively straightforward place that served what many call "New American" cuisine. With the addition of a new chef a year or so ago, it has become much, well, swankier. Prix fixe only, no a la carte items. Oh, just check out the menu yourself if you like. (Do note that on an $82 for three courses of $102 for four course menu, you can still pay a little more if you're in the mood for, say, alba truffle risotto and have $120 you don't want anymore.)

So we dressed as swankily as possible, given our limited travel wardrobes. I bring options, but even I have limits. (Actually, it's United Airlines' baggage limits that are really holding me back.) As we climbed the stairs after riding the 6 train to 23rd street, and popped up into the cold night air, my cell phone got back in touch with the mothership and informed me, just as I was stepping into the restaurant and undoing the buttons on my overcoat, that I had new messages. One of the friends meeting us had had a asthma attack and they were so sorry, but they would have to cancel.

Although he was disappointed at not seeing our friends, Bob was nonetheless relieved that we could now go somewhere else for dinner. Personally, I am a fan of cuisine as theater, and love a multi-course tasting menu and artistic presentations and amuse-bouches and that sort of thing. He lives by the rule of "horizontal cuisine": if the food on the plate is taller than it is wide, it's not for him.

So we left EMP, and wandered over to Union Square Cafe. 90 minutes for a table. I scouted a place the maitre d' at Union Square Cafe had recommended, but it didn't seem sufficiently horizontal enough to please Bob, so we headed over to Gramercy Tavern, one of New York's most popular (and best) restaurants. The wait for a seat in the bar area was an hour or more, but we added our name to the list and asked the maitre d' for his recommendations. His first choice, craftbar, a Tom Colicchio restaurant was around the corner and, as I found on another scouting exhibition, had a table for us.

What they didn't have was service for us. After an hour at the table, we had been served a bowl of soup. With no entrees in sight (despite two promises from our server that "it's being plated right now"), we got up, retrieved our coats and went back to Gramercy -- where our name had just reached the top of the list.

Best Pasta Dish Ever?

Ravioli con Il Cacio e Pere -- pear and fresh pecorino-filled ravioli, aged pecorino, crushed black pepper. At Felidia, the restaurant of Lidia Bastianich. Amazing.

Sometimes...


...cute puppies are what you need to warm you on a cold day.

From a pet store window in Manhattan's upper east side.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Misguided Bromide


Whoever coined this little bit of wisdom has a very shallow grasp of astronomy.

The Journey Has Begun

Greetings from San Francisco International! The semi-annual New York City "fill-the-well" trip begins today. Over the next two weeks you will be able to access daily reports on my experiences in the capital of the world as I soak up the riches of Manhattan until I am sopping with creative juice. There will be reports on the dozen and a half shows I plan to see, as well as the occasional random thought and/or image.

Glad you are along for the ride.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Simple Question


Mike Huckabee, it is reported, has apologized to Mitt Romney for comments he made about the Mormon faith in an extended interview with the New York Times. In this piece, Huckabee explains the context of his remarks.

Here's what happened. The reporter asked Huckabee if he thought Mormonism was a religion or a cult. Huckabee reportedly responded that he thought it was a religion, but that he didn't know that much about it. Then he asks, "Don't Mormons believe that Jesus and the Devil are brothers?" An innocent enough question, it would seem, given that the answer is, in fact, "yes."

But apparently it was enough to set off the press, who wondered if it was truly an innocent question, or a politically-motivated attempt to focus attention on the perceived strangeness of Romney's faith. Huckabee felt obligated to apologize to Romney when they met on stage at yesterday's Republican debate, even though Huckabee claims he was genuinely curious and never meant to draw Romney's faith - or any theological issues - into the campaign.

Just for argument's sake, let's say Mike is being sincere. Though I disagree strongly with his beliefs, I do believe he holds them sincerely, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. I do this partly because it sheds light on a statement Huckabee made on "Larry King Live": "I'm trying to stay away from everything I can say. I'm being much more cautious now, because everything is being parsed."

It would seem Huckabee is beginning to notice how differently a presidential frontrunner is treated. He realizes- to a greater degree than ever - that part of the election process is surviving media scrutiny. The person who can handle knowing that every time they are in a public setting, virtually EVERYTHING they say and do is being recorded by someone. Probably several someones.

Huckabee's response? To pull back more, to say less. As Iowans endure/enjoy these final three weeks of personal attention on a national scale, Huckabee is going to be choosing his words very carefully.

But if part of what makes Mike Huckabee appealing is his seeming open and genuine nature, too much self-editing could put him at risk of losing some of that appeal.

So Mike...if you were truly being sincere, don't apologize for it. You didn't shower him with invective or call his faith ridiculous, or otherwise behave in a manner that might actually warrant an apology. You asked a simple question.

Which leads me to a simple question of my own: If you had to apologize because Romney's religion - or ANY issue of theology - is considered out of bounds in the electoral process, I want to know why.

I imagine your (and especially Governor Romney's) answer would be something along the lines of "because the Constitution dictates there is to be no religious test for the office of president. Not to mention the First Amendment."

But here's where this goes wrong for me. If religion isn't to be used as a lever in a presidential election, shouldn't it be equally out of bounds to call upon its "support" in referenda issues like one-man/one-woman marriage amendments? Our Constitution guarantees the freedom to practice whatever faith we choose, and that no state church may be established. It follows, therefore, that one religion or sect's beliefs cannot be allowed to trump any other's in the realm of civil polity.

Thus could I sing, and thus rejoice, but it is not so with me.

Same-sex Marriage=Global Strife?

According the Pope Benedict (who occasionally makes sense), same-sex marriage is a threat to world peace because "Everything that serves to weaken the family based on the marriage of a man and woman, everything that directly or indirectly stands in the way of its openness to the responsible acceptance of new life ... constitutes an objective obstacle on the road to peace."

Here's the problem. There's no proof of any sort that same-sex marriage weakens one-man, one-woman marriage. None. I would argue that greater acceptance of same-sex unions will actually strengthen not only traditional marriage (by reducing the motivation for those who use marriage to reinforce their closet doors), but our society as a whole by reinforcing the stability that comes from couplehood.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Time to shut up about Huckabee?

According to the Drudge Report, the Democrats have decided not to attack Mike Huckabee for his comments about quarantining HIV patients, believing Adam and Eve were two actual people, that God has been helping him in the polls, etc. Why? Because they feel he is so vulnerable on these points that he would be easy to take down in the general election. Apparently they'd love to see him win the nomination so they can crush him in November. I'm not entirely sure. "Do you want a president who believes the Earth is only 6000 years old?" is a question that seems likely to alienate people with even lightly-held religious beliefs.

Crazier Than You Think

As Mike Huckabee rises in the polls, he might have a hard time distancing himself from some of his past statements. Especially those where he tries to walk the line between his supposed faith and his political ambition. This one, for example:

"Interestingly enough, if there was ever an occasion for someone to have argued against the death penalty, I think Jesus could have done so on the cross and said, "This is an unjust punishment and I deserve clemency.""

That's from 1997, when Huckabee was governor of Arkansas, answering a question about capital punishment during a call-in radio show. Apparently, Huckabee's point was that since Jesus didn't say that, the New Testament therefore endorses the death penalty. Did he ever read the rest of the NT? Does he seriously think Christ would be standing with W on this issue?

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Watching Ourselves

Here's a brief description of some very interesting research that shows humans tend to be more altruistic when either God or the broader community is on their minds.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

An Excellent Post on Torture

From the redoubtable Andrew Sullivan. Money quote: "If they are cynical and brazen enough to destroy incriminating tapes, they are cynical and brazen enough to destroy any evidence within the executive branch that could prove that their torture policy has failed. If this isn't a form of tyranny, annexed to torture, what is? And if the executive branch can simply get away with it, and have serious commentators defend the president's trashing of the Constitution as necessary to fulfill his oath of office, we really have left the rule of law behind in the ditch."

Friday, December 07, 2007

It Is Happening Again

News of a recent poll showing Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee moving into second place in the race for the Republican presidential nomination (nationwide, not just in Iowa) have me very worried.

Why? Because his image is that of a very pleasant, likable guy with a deep Christian faith that informs his politics. Remind you of anyone? (As TV's Craig Ferguson would say.) I see far too much George Bush in Mike Huckabee for my liking. His reliance on faith is troubling -- not because he calls on it for personal spiritual support, but because it informs his policy decisions. As he says on his web site: "My faith doesn't influence my decisions, it drives them. I don't separate my faith from my personal and professional lives." So how is a man who believes in biblical inerrancy and doesn't believe in evolution, preferring instead to hold the view that dinosaurs and man walked the earth together, going to lead the scientific efforts required to advance our society? How can a man who believes that allowing same-sex civil unions will lead to the end of civilization be expected to protect the civil rights that are at the core of this country's greatness. The right is having a wonderful time talking about how the founders were men of faith and built a country based on their faith. But when it came time to write the Declaration of Independence, the FIRST self-evident truth was that "all men are created equal." What happened to that?

Huckabee scares me because he has the support of that rabid 20-25% base of delusional evangelicals, people who will vote for him no matter what, as long as he keeps up the bible-thumping -- plus the support of people who just think he's a nice guy. This man could win, and America could spiral down even further into irrational policies based on a childish faith in an unseen being. We must call our own OWN power to save us -- not some imaginary god.

My Thoughts Exactly, 3

Have a gander at this piece from Salon, discussing how Mitt Romney's protestations of religious tolerance are misplaced, and that it is actually the secularists he attacks who are far more tolerant of religious diversity.

Money quote: "If Romney is going to attack humanists and secularists as "wrong," then let him explain why they were so far ahead of his church on the greatest moral issues of the past half-century."

Thursday, December 06, 2007

"You Don't Want This"

I don't know if you saw "Ray," the biopic of Ray Charles's life and music, but there's a scene where Ray stumbles upon some of his band members shooting heroin. Ray expresses curiosity, the bandmates try to talk him out of it, but Ray insists - and subsequently ends up addicted.

Here's the comic take on that scene, from the new film "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story." Like all good comedy, it's funny because it's true.

The Unclosing Eye

Of perfectionism.

Guilty as charged.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Line of the Year


"My penis was clearly in his mouth." (Sorry if I shocked you, Mom.) The mouth in question belongs to Larry Craig. The penis is the property of Mike Jones. Yes, that Mike Jones, the Denver area rent boy who was responsible for the outing of Rev. Ted Haggard. The Idaho Statesman published a story today featuring interviews with five men (four of whom are willing to be publicly identified) describing flirtations, advances and full-on sexual encounters with Senator Larry Craig. (Who, remember, is still serving the citizens of Idaho, still voting.) The best feature is the sound files of excerpts from the reporter's interviews.

The Race is On

I don't know about you, but the 2008 presidential race is the most exciting election I've ever seen. With the level of media involvement and big money being thrown around, you'd think the nominations would already be in the bag. Just a month or so ago, Hillary was seen as a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination, and Rudy was the presumptive favorite to get the Republican's nod.

Then, over the past weeks, both frontrunners have begun to slip. Hillary, after her weak performance at the most recent Democratic debate, has slowly slipped in polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire. And Rudy has been losing ground to Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. Romney matches Giuliani in the "I have managerial experience" category that Americans seem to want after experiencing eight years of the gang that couldn't govern straight, but he has the positions on social issues required to win over evangelical voters. Huckabee seems like a sincere, honest, Christian guy -- qualities voters don't see in the former New York mayor. (Though he might have a bit of a hard time justifying the fact that he doesn't believe in evolution, but we'll have to wait and see how that plays.)

In a poll out today, the lead in Iowa -- with only about a month until the caucuses -- now belongs to Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee. Huckabee's rise is especially interesting, given that he is spending only a fraction of the money Romney and Giuliani are putting out in the Hawkeye State.

So what happens if Obama and Huckabee take Iowa? Can they extend their popularity into New Hampshire -- a much different state, with a much different nominating process (actual voting, vs. a series of caucuses)? My hunch is they can take Iowa, but they lose in New Hampshire, where Hillary holds on (but barely) and Romney wins the Republican race. Romney then takes Michigan and Nevada, Huckabee picks up South Carolina -- but we still don't know the nominee until Super Tuesday, February 5, when 20 states hold their primaries, including California, New York, New Jersey and Illinois, where Giuliani could do some catching up.

On the dems side, I don't see Hillary getting the nod now. Her negatives are just too high. On the other hand, I'm not sure America is ready to elect a black man whose name rhymes with Osama and whose father was Muslim. Obama takes Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina, but loses New Hampshire to Hillary or Edwards. On Super Tuesday, the battle begins. HRC pulls down New York and New Jersey, but Edwards brings home Florida, while Obama pulls down California. And we still don't have a nominee and Dems wait until the convention to choose a candidate.

Meanwhile, if Romney wins Super Tuesday, the Republican race is settled. But if Giuliani wins big in February, the evangelicals go crazy because of his stands on abortion and gay rights. (Only the craziest of the crazy evangelicals worry about Romney's religion, though.) That means an independent candidate could step in and break the whole race wide open.

If Bloomberg steps up, he pulls the moderate Republicans away from Romney. (If Giuliani wins, Bloomberg stays home.) But he also pulls conservative Democrats who just can't get behind voting for an African-American because, well, because they just can't.

Keep watching.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Good Point


From Pope Benedict XVI's most recent encyclical: "How did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others?"

Of course, he also attacks atheism as being the source of the "greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice" in history. Gee, worse than the Crusades, or the Inquisition or clerical sexual abuse, or slavery, or terrorism? Or even the use of an unseen omnipotence to justify the denial of basic human rights right here in America? I think not.

More on the new encyclical can be found here. You can read the full text here.

The Future in Your Pocket, The Past in Your Mind

A while back, a rumor made the rounds in Khartoum, Sudan -- the same place where an English pre-school teacher has been arrested (and crowds bay for her execution) because she allowed her three and four-year old charges to name the class teddy bear "Muhammed" -- that if a man shook the hand of an infidel, his penis would fall off. The rumor spread via cell phone and text messaging. Apparently, many men took the rumor seriously. But what is amazing is that confluence of modernity and superstition. The rumor spreads via a wonder of science and technology -- yet the men who fell for this bit of ridiculous folklore simply couldn't reconcile the facts of science (even though the proof of its efficacy was right there in their hands) with their ancient xenophobic mindset.

Doesn't bode well for the future we all need to share.