WOLF HALL WEEKEND

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Neither Ginny nor I are prone to tout our own abilities, but there are some things we can do, and that’s all there is to it. As it ajm)avmhappens, one of them is sitting. Like Will Sonnet, the old TV character played by Walter Brennan put it. “No brag, just fact.” Not that we won’t pee occasionally; not that we’ll always be awake. But park us in a chair, and it’s likely that come hell or high water, we’ll be there long enough to be mistaken for George Segal sculptures. Thus when it was announced last December that Wolf Hall, the two-part adaptation of Hilary Mantel‘s brilliant novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, would be playing on Broadway, we jumped at the chance to see both plays in a single day, which we did last Saturday.

It was a great experience. It was just fun to immerse oneself in theater and historical drama and literature, things we both love. Frankly, we don’t get to it enough. And helping to make it special was that Hilary Mantel herself was at the theater, and I rather fearlessly shook her hand and told her how much I admired her work. I do wish I liked the plays better. I guess they were dramatic enough, but the great pleasure and the great accomplishment of the novels was being inside the head of the main character, Thomas Cromwell, something very difficult to do in a play. As depicted by Mantel, Cromwell was
very intelligent, very shrewd, a great judge of character, a man who had spent his whole life living by his wits, and who was quite good at it. He was also a man of opinion, one who held views about the monarchy and religion and the world generally. We don’t really see much of these attributes in this adaptation. Cromwell is not as complicated: he protects his friends and hurts his whenemies. Way too simplistic, I’m afraid.

As it happens, the television adaptation of the novel began on Sunday night, and was pretty much for me everything that the play was not. Cromwell was fleshed out far more fully, and you could see his subtle intelligence at work. Mark Rylance, playing Cromwell, had much more to work with–many more facets of Cromwell’s life was portrayed, and one could see him as father, husband, reformer, and so one. In the best scene in Part One, Cromwell has an audience with the king, Henry VIII, played by Damien Lewis. Cromwell had once been in  parliament and was critical of Henry’s war aims in France, and Henry has not forgotten. Henry. a man surrounded by syncophants, is surprised that not only does Cromwell not back down, but he suggests a better way from Henry to get what he wants. There is a moment when a Henry looks at Cromwell with a sidelong glance and a half smile, as though surprised, and even amused, that someone would express to him an original thought. Aha! That’s Wolf Hall in a nutshell–the sublime pleasure in encountering something new and unexpected. I can’t wait for the rest of the series.

BROADWAY BABY

photo-1113.1I haven’t been to the theater in a long time, but thanks to a secret benefactor, I was able to see two shows this week, both star vehicles. The first, I’ll Eat You Last, was an amusing trifle starring Bette Midler as the once legendary Hollywood agent Sue Mengers. As a decades-long fan of Midler and her flamboymant, brassy, over-the-top, vulgar (But true! and generous! and kind!) brilliance, it was fun to see her play the flamboyant, brassy, over-the-top, vulgar, true, generous, kind and brilliant Mengers. About eighty minutes long, with lots of smutty punchlines, a few good anecdotes, and really expensive tickets, it’s almost certainly making everybody concerned fistsful of dollars.

The second play, Lucky Guy, starred Tom Hanks as the photo-13 copynewspaper columnist Mike McAlary. I expected to hate it, since it was by Nora Ephron, and I find most of what Ephron has written for the screen to be cloyingly sentimental, with performances that suck you in with a kind of dazzle and stories that ultimately leave you feeling like you’ve read a Hallmark card. And do you know what? This show was highly sentimental, and I . . .kind of. . . liked it. And it was cloying, just the same. But three things really worked. First, the performances were good: Hanks, Peter Gehrity, Maura Tierney, Courtney B. Vance and especially Chrstopher McDonald. Second, Ephron very adroitly dovetailed the rise and fall and ultimate death of Mike McAlary with the rise and heyday and fall and soon-to-be death of tabloid newspapers, and it was well done–very well perceived. Second, George Wolfe‘s energetic, flashy staging really worked for me. The play was odd–lots of loud, vulgar language, lots of speed, lots of action. In many, many scenes, actors broke the fourth wall and speaking loudly, talked directly to the audience, narrating the story. After a while, I got it–the actors were playing newspapermen, and they were acting like the papers they wrote for, shouting at you from the newsstand, shouting to get your attention, shouting to make you hear the story they had to tell. The play was very much a love letter to a way of life that has all but disappeared. Maybe you had to be in journalism to fully commit to the play, to overlook its faults. But I was in journalism. I read those papers. And I liked the play.

BRILLIANT WAR HORSE!

Usually when I see a play and think that the acting is a little hammy and the script a bit sappy, I have not had a good time. In the case of War Horse, however, which Ginny and Molly and Cara and I saw last Sunday, those objections were overshadowed by the sheer awesome, brilliant theatricality of the production. This play, which is about an English boy and his horse and their experiences in France during World War I, was originally written as a children’s book, and is now being produced as a film by Steven Spielberg. I will admit to pre-judging these two works sight unseen when I say that I would expect them to be soppingly sentimental. And the play, which is running at Lincoln Center, is indeed sentimental (yes, it brought a tear to my eye.) But as you can see from the commercial that appeared on behalf of the London production (below), the puppets that are used to portray the horses (and other things, like a tank) are astonishing. Created and operated by the Handspring Puppet Company, they are life-like, and yet larger than life. Combined with lighting, music and video, the amazing puppets created an affecting, and amazing, theatrical experience.

LOOSE LIPS DAYS

Cleaning the attic this week, I came upon this trove of photographs of the original cast of Loose Lips, taken during rehearsal, probably in June or July of 1994. The pictures were almost certainly taken by my co-writer Lisa Birnbach. Above, Jimmy Biberi, Sarah Pratter, Ingrid Rockefeller, Keith Primi, Luke Toma and Scott Bryant. Below, Biberi and Toma, probably rehearsing the mob sketch; Ingrid, Keith, Luke and Scott; narrator Mark Smaltz; Smaltz, with Sarah and Keith behind, perhaps setting up the Camilla and Chuck bit; Scott and Sarah, and Scott and Mark. At bottom, the Loose Lips Action Figures that Daniel Carter worked up. I wish we had thought to photograph the packaging.


STREET SCENES

dscn0733Ladies and gentlemen, your brand new traffic-less Times Square. Much less life-threatening now.

dscn0734dscn0735One of very favorite sites from an ever-rapidly disappearing Times Square: The old I. Miller Shoe Company on the northeast corner of West 46th Street and Times Square, a great shoe-supplier to the stage during the theatrical heyday of the 1920s, when close to a hundred theaters operated in the Times Square theater district. On the second floor of the building, Miller’s proprietors erected statues to his four favorite female performers: Ethel Barrymore as Ophelia, Marilyn Miller as Sunny, Mary Pickford as Little Lord Fauntleroy, and Rosa Ponselle as Norma. The statues are poised below an engraving of the store’s motto: ”The Show Folks Shoe Shop Dedicated to Beauty in Footwear.”

A MESMERIZING ATHEIST

A stranger comes up to you at a bar or in a train station and starts to tell you a story. How long do you last? Five minutes? Could you tolerate him for ten minutes without looking at your watch? How about ninety?

Impossible. And yet seven times a week at Greenwich Village’s Barrow Street Theater, Campbell Scott accomplishes the feat of standing alone on a stage and absolutely captivating an audience. Scott, one of his generation’s very best (and yet, oddly, in an industry where the fortyish leading man is an endangered species, least famous) actors, plays Augustine Early in a play called The Atheist by the Irish playwright Ronan Noone. Early is a reporter for a newspaper in a small town in Kansas, and he brings to his job far more ambition than scruples. One night he rolls into bed with a pretty girl, and the next morning rolls out of it, and into his main chance. Scott is incredible as he discloses to his increasingly fascinated audience how he manipulates the subject of his investigation. He is, by turns, funny, appalling, sympathetic, repugnant, clever, nasty, deceitful and brutally honest. One of the evening’s best moments comes after the play ends and Scott takes his bows. After holding us in the palm of his hand for an hour and half, we expect him to say more, but Scott just looks at us, and then walks away.We have forgotten that Scott is an actor, and that Augustine Early is not real. How often does that happen any more?

EXCELLENT PRODUCTION!

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Congratulations to Cara and her friends in the Summercliff Players on their excellent performance of Les Miserables. It’s amazing that they were able to pull together this complicated show in just five weeks. It was very, very enjoyable, and I was happy to see that Cara seemed to enjoy the experience so much.

A CRAZY HAMLET

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One of the best highlights of summer these last few years has been seeing Shakespeare in Central Park with my daughter Molly. We’ve seen Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona: The Musical, Mother Courage, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hair, and, last week, Hamlet. The productions aren’t always great, but it’s always fun to go and to spend time with M. This year, Michael Stuhlberg gave us a really crazy Hamlet, which is surely a legitimate interpretation, but he really wears out his welcome. Andre Braugher could have displayed a bit more hauteur as Claudius, but Margaret Colin (I’ve always liked her) as Gertrude and Lauren Ambrose as Ophelia were strong, and Sam Waterston stole the show as Polonius. It’s a sign of my advancing age that I identified with Gertrude (why won’t my son grow up and let me enjoy my life a little?) and Polonius more than any of the other characters. (Below, Molly, before the show, right, and taking the late train home, left.)

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HAIR AT 40

hair2.JPGOn a clammy, sweet Central Park Saturday evening, the New York Shakespeare Festival celebrated the 40th anniversary of he musical Hair with the first of a three performance revival. Many in the crowd that was well-mixed between genuine youths and paunchier, grayer veterans youths who were in their salad days when Hair was in its single digits wondered why Festival had decided to throw a three day party, rather than run the show for five or six weeks as one of its main summer offerings. The reason was soon apparent: Hair at 40 is thrilling but boring, exuberant but tedious, fresh but musty. You walk out humming the hit songs, and wondering how 1967, a year so seemingly clear in memory, can seem to have happened so very long ago.

One of the things that’s striking about the show is how poorly shock ages, and how very much this show must have depended on shock for its success. Saying cunnilingus onstage, imitating a hallucinogenic haze onstage, going buck naked onstage, seeing a show where all this happened onstage—these things must have marked one as quite the daring cultural pioneer in those days of yore. Now they are all quite commonplace, if not clichéd; indeed, a great corporate giant like HBO counts on being congratulated for boldly airing programs featuring nudity, profanity, and all sorts of wild behavior—plays from the Hair playbook updated and turned into lucrative home entertainment. Madonna built an enormously successful career by calculating how to take the spirit of rebellion and self-expression and turning it into cash. Sadly, when stripped of its power to shock, Hair is left being a largely bookless review and a collection of songs that for the most part bettered in lyrics and musicianship by whatever happens to be playing on your local Top 40 radio station at this very second. And that includes commercials.

However, the show’s very best songs are wonderful. Hearing the Fifth Dimension sing `Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In’’ a million times over the years cannot dilute the impact of the single soaring voice that opens the show with an almost majestic Aquarius. Later in the first act, the song Hair remains a comic joy—clever, funny, exuberant. In both songs, a splendid spirit of triumphalism joyfully explodes from the stage. In these moments, the show’s original spirit shines through, and one shares the sheer pleasure the show takes in being young, in discovering the world anew, in believing one has the power to change things.

And then there’s the show’s ending, in which the character of Claude, a sweet-tempered young man just starting to enjoy life, ends up as a casualty of war. It is unfortunately, as subtle as a brick. And yet affecting. Sobering. Anger-making. It’s sad to see this show and realize that the shock ends, the idealism ebbs, the triumphalism wanes, but the bodies and still pile up. As Sonny and Cher sang so sardonically in the same summer of love when Hair first appeared, “the beat goes on.’’