Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower and Going Clear, has written a play, Camp David, which is being performed at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see who’s playing Jimmy Carter.
There’s an irrationally hopeful part of me that keeps expecting that one of these days Paul Ryan will pop up in front of a camera and instead of announcing yet another version of his basic Starve the Little Children budget he’ll say, “Hey, folks! Guess what, I’ve been kidding all along. These ‘budgets’ of mine are jokes. I just wanted to see how appalling I could make them before the Political Press Corps noticed they don’t add up, they don’t even make sense, they certainly aren’t intended to be helpful and that rather than being the serious, thoughtful, center-right grown-up Republican they’ve been trying to present me as I’m a dangerous goofball and Right Wing tool. Doesn’t look like that’s ever going to happen. I could propose turning poor old people into Soylent Green and the Sunday talk show bobbleheads would only wonder why no Democrats were willing to even discuss a compromise with me on it.”
Just a few points here. I could, and will and do, go deep in the weeds on this sort of thing. But here’s pretty much all you need to know: his cuts to Pell grants–college tuition assistance for students from low-income families–comes under the section called “Expanding Opportunity.”
Strengthening the safety net is actually block granting SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid. “Ending cronyism” is repealing Dodd-Frank. Orwell would blush.
At the diner. Woman at the counter regaling three old guys and the waitress with tales from her high school days, which I’d estimate at about thirty years ago.
“That’s what they called me in high school. Ass and Elbows. They all called me that. Ass and Elbows. My best friend got me a t-shirt that said that. Ass and Elbows. ‘Wear that proudly,’ she said, ‘Wear it proudly, cause that’s all any guy’s gonna see of you. Ass and elbows.’”
Coming to the bitter end of Peter Baker’s Days of Fire. Lots to think over. Hasn’t changed my mind that George W. Bush should never have been President. Wasn’t Baker’s intention that it should. But I’ll tell you what it has done.
Made me hope that if I search through the archives here I won’t find any posts in which I called Bush stupid or an idiot.
Another reason to keep reading Days of Fire is to be reminded that there was a time when someone who sat out the War in Vietnam to devote himself to ratfucking political opponents of Richard Nixon could stand up in public and question the courage, resolve, and patriotism of men who had not only volunteered to serve in that war but had been wounded in country:
In the midst of the discussion, Bush got more good news. Karl Rove received word that he would not be indicted. Rove was on a plane around 4 p.m. about to take off for New Hampshire when his lawyer called to tell him the prosecutor had informed him no charges would be brought. For Rove, it was a powerful relief. While he had maintained a public stoicism about the investigation, “behind the mask, the whole thing was scaring the hell out of me.” Now pumped up, Rove went on to deliver a red-meat speech to a Republican audience that night, accusing Democrats like John Kerry and John Murtha of “cutting and running” in Iraq. “They may be with you at the first shots,” he said, “but they are not going to be there for the last tough battles.”
Someday someone will write a book about how a professional weasel and smear artist like could not only get away with spouting off like that but be hailed as a political genius and then, based on that reputation as a political genius, go on to have a lucrative career as TV "analyst."
In case you were wondering, I'm still reading Peter Baker's Days of Fire and passages like this are why:
What Bush did not describe was exactly what the “alternative set of procedures” were. He did not disclose that [Khalid Sheik] Mohammed had been waterboarded 183 times and [Abu] Zubaydah 83 times. Nor did he describe ho Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the Saudi accused of directing the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, was waterboarded twice and threatened with a power drill and a loaded handgun in a mock execution; if Nashiri did not talk, he was told, “we could get your mother in here.” Bush did not describe other techniques, including forced nudity, slamming detainees into walls, placing them in a dark, cramped box with insects, dousing them with water as cold as forty-one degrees, and keeping them awake for up to eleven days straight. He rejected the notion that all this constituted torture. “I want to be absolutely clear with our people and the world,” Bush said. “The United States does not torture. It’s against our laws and it’s against our values. I have not authorized it, and I will not authorize it.” This reassurance, however, meant only that as long as he and his lawyers determined that a tactic was not torture, then he could say he did not authorize torture, even if it was deemed torture by the rest of the world.
Definitely not the apology for Bush I was afraid it might turn out to be. It was almost impossible that it could have been. You can't set out to chronicle that administration without its becoming a chronicle of ineptitude, corruption, misfeasance, malfeasance, and political, military, intellectual, and moral failure.
Tuesday. April 8, 2014. Two or so in the afternoon. Outside the convenience store, four old men well past retirement age, three in ballcaps, one, the one who still has a full head of hair, bareheaded, all four with hands dug deep inside the pockets of their windbreakers, standing on the sidewalk enjoying what is passing for the spring weather. Out the door bursts a young man, no more than thirty, swinging a gallon of milk and singing.
Strolls by the old men towards his mud-spattered SUV. Just as he reaches for his keys he reaches that line in the song.
You know which one.
He belts it out at the top of his lungs as if he thinks he has an audience waiting for a strong finish.
The old men turn their heads slightly and give him a four-part side-eye.
“La de da la de dah!” the young man sings and slides in behind the wheel and drives away.
Lots to lament and deplore in this series of pictures showing various storefronts around Manhattan as they were ten years ago and as they are now, especially in the lower sets of photographs which are records of decline and decay and not gentrification. But up higher it’s not all lamentable and deplorable. It’s a good thing when failing and failed businesses are replaced with going concerns, even if the going concern is a Subway franchise. But of course it’s not good when a going concern makes way for nothing in the way of an improvement because the rent’s gotten too damn high or the changes in the neighborhood have driven away the clientele. I don’t get down to the city often enough to see what’s going on for myself. My sentimental bias has me thinking the world needs more bars like McHale’s than restaurants like Satya, but I never drank at the one and haven’t eaten at the other, so what do I know?
What got me in this one and in others and something I’ve noticed on some blocks when I’ve walked around is the disappearance of red brick and its replacement by metal---steel, aluminum, chrome---all of it with the shine, welcoming warmth, and visual appeal of polished tin.
I don’t know what the architects are thinking. I imagine the business owners are thinking, Just give me something that’s easy to hose down. But it appears as if the architects think people want to live, work, and play in an environment with a minimum of visual and tactile interest and a maximum of sterility and self-containment, as if sealed in against germs and spoilage. That is, inside a can.
To some the young Mickey Rooney will always be Andy Hardy fumbling his way towards adulthood and getting laughed at by love along the way or a babe arm in arm with Judy Garland singing and dancing and putting on a show. But to me he’ll always be working his way towards inventing the phonograph and the light bulb. Rooney and Virginia Weidler in Young Tom Edison.
The real fun in this post is in following the links.
To honor Mickey Rooney tonight, do not watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Instead, try The Black Stallion or Carl Reiner’s often overlooked The Comic starring Dick Van Dyke as a Buster-Keaton-esque silent movie star and Rooney delivering a terrific performance as his put upon but always devoted friend and sidekick, Cockeye.
One of my favorites of his performances, though, was on television, in an episode of Naked City called Oofus-Goofus.
Remember, the basic corporatist conservative premise is that the country exists for the care and feeding of millionaires and the driving economic principle is that it’s better to make one rich person one dollar richer than a hundred working people a penny less poor. School “reform” with its attendant push towards privatization, union busting, and standardized testing administered for a hefty profit by private corporations encapsulates both that premise and that principle.
Simply put, they want all the money!
Then, in January 2013, teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School announced they would refuse to give their students the Measures of Academic Progress Test—the MAP test. Despite threats of retaliation by their district, they held steadfast. By May, the district caved, telling its high schools the test was no longer mandatory.
Garfield’s boycott triggered a nationwide backlash to the “reform” that began with Friedman and the privatizers in 1980. At last, Americans from coast to coast have begun redefining the problem for what it really is: not an education crisis but a manufactured catastrophe, a facet of what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism.”
Look closely—you’ll recognize the formula: Underfund schools. Overcrowd classrooms. Mandate standardized tests sold by private-sector firms that “prove” these schools are failures. Blame teachers and their unions for awful test scores. In the bargain, weaken those unions, the largest labor organizations remaining in the United States. Push nonunion, profit-oriented charter schools as a solution.
If a Hurricane Katrina or a Great Recession comes along, all the better. Opportunities for plunder increase as schools go deeper into crisis, whether genuine or ginned up.
The reason for privatization Chris Hedges, the former New York Times correspondent, appeared on Democracy Now! in 2012 and told host Amy Goodman the federal government spends some $600 billion a year on education—“and the corporations want it. That’s what’s happening. And that comes through charter schools. It comes through standardized testing. And it comes through breaking teachers’ unions and essentially hiring temp workers, people who have very little skills.”
Heading up to Syracuse this morning. Taking Potter’s Avatars to see the mantinee performane of the drama department’s production of Brecht’s The Good Woman of Setzuan. I’ve seen a whole lotta Brecht in less than a year. Caucasian Chalk Circleback in May. A Man’s a Man just a couple months ago. And, psst, don't tell my students, but once you've seen one Brecht, you've pretty much seen them all. The Caucasian Chalk Circlewith Christopher Lloyd was a lot of fun, but in that Bertolt Brecht was balanced off by some Chekhov---Pavel, not Anton---and a little Rocket J. Squirrel. My review of A Man's a Man sums things up for me. Here it is again, in case you missed it, A Man’s a Man: Brecht at his most obviously Brechtian:
Justin Vivian Bond as the Widow Begbik sings a lament over the not really deceased but increasingly dead to himself Galy Gay (Gibson Frazier) in Classic Stage Company’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s very Brechtian A Man’s A Man.
Stated simply, the title of Bertolt Brecht’s A Man’s A Man might sound like a modest boast of every man’s intrinsic worth, as it is in Robert Burns’ poem A Man’s A Man For A’ That. But the original German title is Mann ist Mann which can be translated as Man equals man and with that in mind it might be better to hear 'A Man’s A Man" as part of a sarcastic dismissal of a man’s individual worth.
What does it matter who does the job? Him or you. A man’s a man, and one’s as good as another, a point Classic Stage Company’s roisterous, often rowdy production of one of Brecht’s earliest plays makes forcefully and persuasively in the first thirty minutes with much fun and ingenuity and then goes on making and making again with increasing ingenuity but with less persuasiveness and more gritted-teeth determination to have fun as it follows a script in which the young Brecht establishes his too Brechtian habit of repeating himself exhaustingly while growing more and more didactic with each iteration.
After a short while, all the enjoyment here is in the many ways director Brian Kulick , his production team, and his talented and exuberant cast have come up with to distract us from Brecht being Brecht.
Thematically, A Man’s A Man is about the mutability of identity and how society treats one human being as interchangeable with any other.
Theatrically, the best thing about the Classic Stage Company’s production of A Man’s A Man is its one central female character as played by the remarkable Justin Vivian Bond.
Bond delivers a sultry, sensuous performance as the Widow Begbik, the owner of a canteen serving soldiers of the British Army in a place that’s not exactly India---A colony’s a colony---in the days of the Raj, who claims to have had her identity, reputation, and true life story rewritten by the ungrateful and exploitive men who have passed through her bar and come and gone from her bed. She implies that who and what she appears to be is a surrender. She’s given in to her imposed identity and become what people say she is.
But Bond brings her so vividly and sympathetically to life that she seems to refute herself.
If this is a self written and foisted upon the Widow Begbik by others, she’s made it her own the way fine actors like…well, like Bond can make a character a thousand others have played uniquely their own.
The same can’t be said of Galy Gay, the man who is a man of the title, just not the man he thinks he is. Galy, a good-natured, obliging, and not particularly bright dockworker, is as rewritable, revisable, and cut and paste-able as an image in PhotoShop. What’s done to him in the course of the play is almost the theatrical equivalent of what gets done to Daffy Duck in the Looney Tunes classic Duck Amuck in which Daffy finds himself trapped on a drawing board at the mercy of a maliciously mischievous animator who turns out to be Bugs Bunny in full “Ain’t I a stinker?” mode. Galy is redrawn in different guises over and over again to the point where he can’t recognize himself or even remember himself anymore.
The plot of A Man’s A Man is, we’re warned right up top by the whole cast shouting in unison, “Incomprehensible!” It’s not, really. It’s that Brecht isn’t much interested in developing it. It’s like all his plots, the rails on which the train carrying the jokes, songs, lectures, and occasionally fully-realized scenes runs.
On his way to buy a fish for his wife to cook for dinner, Galy Gay is intercepted by three soldiers who introduce themselves as his new best friends, ply him with beer and cigars, and convince him to do them a small favor.
Could he put on a uniform and pretend to be a missing member of their squad at roll call this evening? Nothing to it, really. Just blend in among the rank and file and shout Present when they call our missing mate’s name? There’s a sergeant who has it in for us and if you help us fool him like this you’ll save us all a world of trouble.
Friend’s name is Jip. Jeraiah Jip. When you hear it, just call out good and loud.
What the three don’t tell Galy is that Jip isn’t so much missing as hiding. The four of them tried to rob a temple and when the robbery went awry Jip left behind a clue that could identify him as one of the would-be robbers. But more than they're concerned Jip might get caught, they’re afraid that his getting caught will lead to their getting caught.
The trouble is the suspicious sergeant is a bloodhound. The ruse has to continue past the point Galy is willing to go along with it. Then the soldiers hit on the idea that the best way to convince Galy to go pretending to be Jipp is to convince him he is Jipp.
What follows is an extended clinic on brainwashing that involves a stolen elephant, a mock court martial and execution, and Galy delivering the oration at his own funeral. Galy begins to lose track of who he is. Is he himself or somebody else or nobody else? Maybe Galy Gay was an alternative self he dreamed up. But does it matter? A man’s a man, after all.
With his lantern jaw, aquiline nose, and high noble brow and forehead, Gibson Frazier, who plays Galy, looks like he might be about ten years or so away from being typecast as a Supreme Court Justice or Roman general. But he has a close-set pair of beady dark eyes and an expressive mouth that frantically reset and reshape themselves within the handsome outlines in a desperately friendly attempt to approximate the appropriate expression to meet whatever’s being said to him and since most of what’s being said to him is absurd or insane or intended to confuse, rather than presenting a portrait of judicial sagacity or military formidableness, Frazier’s face is a constantly and fast moving montage of comic misapprehension, bafflement, existential terror, and short-circuited thought. And he has a wiry muscularity that allows him to assume in an instant whatever body-shape and posture that expresses who Galy thinks he is or ought to be at moment.
Martin Moran, Steven Skybell, and Jason Babinsky play Galy’s new friends who become the mad behavioral scientists engineering his identity swap, a charming trio of rogues and Brecht’s variations on Kipling-esque Tommy types who would turn up less conscience-impaired in the movie Gunga Din played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Victor McLaglen, and Cary Grant. Moran is the soft-spoken, smooth-talking con artist Uriah Shelley. Skybell plays the Irish bully boy Jesse Mahoney. And Babinsky is Polly Baker, the would-be charmer too self-infatuated to see he’s having the opposite effect on the ladies than the one he imagines. Babinsky gets the funniest moment of fourth wall-breaking when he swaggers up to a member of the audience and, unasked, takes her program, autographs it, and wafts it back with an obliging “There you go,” as if he’s done her a favor but of course doesn’t want her to make a big deal of it, he’s just that kind of nice guy for a star.
Andrew Weems plays the real Jeraiah Jip as a jovial and clueless sort whose own weak investment in himself as a self makes him a perfect candidate for replacing by someone, anyone else. Stephen Spinella is the suspicious sergeant whose nom de guerre is Bloody Five, a self-important poseur who begins to lose track of himself when a sexual meltdown brought on by his slavish infatuation with the Widow Begbick causes him to revert to the weakling he fears he really is and shed his identity as the very model of a modern soldier and killer.
Allan K. Washington and Ching Valdes-Aran fill out the cast and fill in around the edges in various roles, Washington most notably as Galy’s accidentally abandoned wife and Valdes-Aran as Mr Wang. A man’s a man, except when he’s not or she is.
A Man’s a Man may not be Brecht at his most didactic. But it is him at his most obvious. He wrote the play in his twenties as his farewell to expressionism and he was just working out the tropes and tricks, themes and alienationalist strategies that would become his hallmarks and signatures. A Man’s A Man is a working model of the kind of theater now known as Brechtian. It’s like one of those glass-bodied concept cars at the auto show that let you look in and marvel at the genius engineering in action.
In effect, Kulick and his actors and designers are staging a demonstration of how to stage Brecht and having a grand time doing so. This makes stars of the show out of Paul Steinberg’s colorful and dynamic set design and Justin Townsend’s evocative and transformational lighting.
Gabriel Barry’s costumes and Matt Kraus’ sound design are excellent in support.
But, as I said, the real star is Bond who makes the Widow Begbik a brilliant special effect.
A MAN'S A MAN by BERTOLT BRECHT. Directed by BRIAN KULICK. Featuring JASON BABINSKY, JUSTIN VIVIAN BOND, GIBSON FRAZIER, MARTIN MORAN, STEVEN SKYBELL, STEPHEN SPINELLA, CHING VALDES-ARAN, ALLAN K. WASHINGTON, and ANDREW WEEMS. At Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY 10003. Through February 16. Call 212.352.3101 or visit the website for tickets.
Photos by Richard Termine, courtesy of Classic Stage Company.
At the theater. Pretty, wide-mouthed, big-lipped strawberry blonde working the box office window. Noisy in the lobby. To hear and speak to customers picking up tickets she leans in close to the glass, bending low, her pointed chin almost touching the counter, and puts her mouth to the opening of the window, an image worth painting and probably putting a lot of young playgoers in mind of a kissing booth.
Quick dinner before the play at the Brazen Fox. A hundred and twenty hipsters and us. Mrs M and I the oldest couple here by twenty-five years at least. I thought the young bohos had been priced out of New York. All these bright young things can’t be lawyers and stockbrokers.
Uniform for employees appears to be whatever you want to wear as long as you wear a blue plaid flannel shirt over it. Individual style encouraged. Host wears his baggy and untucked. Our waitress has made a vest of hers, rolling the sleeves up to her shoulders and leaving it unbuttoned over her white oxford. The hostess who seats us has hers tucked into the belt of her denim skirt.
She shows us to a table deep into the place, far from the front door, a nice, snug cozy spot to park the old folks. But it’s a bar table with high stools. “You don’t have anything with regular chairs, do you?” I ask, taking a look around in dismay. She notices my cane, probably because I ever so subtly waved it in her face.
Ok, I didn’t do that, but she saw the cane.
“Hold on,” she says with the kind of expression you want to see on a nurse but not necessarily on a young restaurant employee handing you a menu when you just want to relax with your wife and pretend you’re still college sweethearts having a fun night out on the town the way you used to back in the day. “I’ll see what I can do,” she continues, sounding to me as if she’s just said, “I’ll get the doctor.”
She’s back STAT with another high stool but this one has a back to it. She hustles off again and brings another one for Mrs M.
I’m trying not to feel as though she’s just rolled up a wheelchair.
She and Mrs M exchange smiles and some pleasantries that I can’t hear over the music---Really. The music. It was a little loud. I’m not going deaf too.---then she turns to me to see if I’m comfortably settled.
“Your back?” she says.
I give a Yes, but it’s no big deal nod.
“You definitely need to have the support,” she says, but now not sounding or looking like a nurse. She puts her hand to the small of her own back. “People forget about their backs. But at the end of the day here, mine’s killing me!”
I want to say, You’re too young to have back trouble, but I know better. I’ve never waited tables but I have worked in retail. She hurries off to take care of other customers but her hand stays where it is as she goes and she even gives herself a little quick massage.
Makes me think of those six-figure salaried Glibertarians whining about how hard they work for their money and that Planet Money story last year in which the reporter tsk-tsked over people on disability who claimed they couldn’t find work when there were all these Walmart and McDonald’s jobs available.
It’s indoor work, in comfortable surroundings, requiring no heavy lifting or physical risk. No one’s shooting at you. No one’s asking to rush into burning buildings. People’s immediate physical well-being doesn’t depend on you making the right snap judgment. You don’t have to stop any bleeding, re-start any hearts.
I want to go back and add, “And you’re not on your feet all day.”
New York City. Rush hour. As we crawled off the GW Bridge and onto the Henry Hudson Parkway, a police van rolled up behind us, letting us know it was there with a quick blare of its siren.
“Does he want us to pull over?” Mrs M worried.
His lights weren’t on. “Doesn’t look like it,” I said.
After a few more minutes of stop and go traffic I looked up and saw he’d dropped back a few car lengths and moved over into the other lane. His siren sounded again but again just a quick whoop and no lights.
By the time we reached the Intrepid he’d maneuvered the van so that he was a few cars ahead of us.
Again the siren. Again no lights.
“What is he doing?” Mrs M said.
“I don’t know,” I said, then it dawned on me. “He’s using his siren as a horn.”
That was not a cop behind the wheel. It was just another tired, irritable New Yorker in a hurry to get home after a long day.
Back from the play. Reviews are embargoed until Wednesday night so look for mine to post by Thursday morning. Meanwhile…the play is The Heir Apparent an adaptation of a 17th Century French Farce by Regnard. The adaptation’s by David Ives whose brilliant reworking of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, retitled The School for Lies, I saw and reviewed back in May of 2011.
Hamish Linklater as Frank and Jenn Gambatese as Elainte wrestle with their conflicting emotions in The School for Lies.
From time to time during the Classic Stage Company’s production of The School for Lies, David Ives’ verbaliciosly hilarious reworking of Moliere’s The Misanthrope, you can see the characters becoming aware of themselves as characters in a play and that they don’t much like it.
Being characters, that is. If they have any sense, which a few of them actually do, they like the play they’re characters in. But it’s baffling for them, and often frustrating, to find themselves at the mercy of a demonically logophiliac playwright.
Looks of consternation, incredulity, bemusement, irritation, shock, and occasionally out and out terror but even delight and amusement will cross their faces as Ives’ puns, and jokes, and cockeyed rhymes come bubbling out of them. You can almost hear them thinking, “I can’t believe he just made me say that” or “I can’t believe he’s going to make me say this” or “I can’t believe I’m saying what I’m saying!”, depending on what point in a line it dawns on them that what’s coming out of their mouths isn’t something they’ve thought of themselves or something they even want to say.
It takes a little while for even the smartest and most sensible of them to catch on to what’s happening. No doubt they start the play thinking they are real 17th Century Frenchmen and women of the sort Moliere turned into comic types for his farces and satires, like The Misanthrope.
In fact, if they were going to wake up to the realization that they were characters in a play, they would have reason to expect it would be that play.
After all, they have the same names as the characters in The Misanthrope. They’re caught up in a plot that shares elements with the plot of The Misanthrope. And for goodly stretches they are allowed to speak actual lines from The Misanthrope or at least close enough for jazz, a musical form they’re probably familiar with, despite its not having been invented yet, since they know about rock and roll and know why calling somebody rock and roll is a compliment, as in “She exalts my soul! She’s single malt! She’s rock and roll!”
You can see how a character who thinks he’s a 17th Century Frenchman, hearing himself carried away by words like that, might begin to suspect something funny’s going on.
The character who delivers that compliment, in spite of himself, is Frank, a young Frenchman who has returned home after several years in England. His name is presumably a nickname for Francois he picked up from his friends across the Channel but it’s also a statement of intent. Frank has come back to France determined to insult the entire nation one citizen at a time. Sick of the constant hypocrisy and double-dealing that he sees as the defining traits of “polite” society, he’s relentlessly and ruthlessly impolite. Asked---and even when not asked---he delivers his frank opinion of everyone and everything, and since he has a pretty low opinion of everyone and everything, few people are glad to hear what he has to say or are impressed by his frankness---few people outside the audience, that is. Frank is extremely witty, whether reciting lines written for him by Moliere, carried away by rhymes forced on him by Ives, or just speaking for himself. Frank is played by Hamish Linklater who lets us see in Frank’s darting, intelligent eyes Frank frantically trying to out-think the two playwrights who are trying to make him their ventriloquist’s dummy.
But Frank meets Celimene, a beautiful young widow, and discovers to his shock and dismay that he can’t hold a low opinion of her. Or actually that he can but that it doesn’t get in the way of his falling passionately in love with her.
For her part, Celimene, played by a golden and glowing Mamie Gummer, doesn’t have time for either Frank’s initial antipathy or his sudden romantic turnabout. She’s distracted by a ruinous lawsuit that she’s likely to lose and by three ridiculously foppish suitors who happen to be ridiculously wealthy and well-connected and who have each promised to save her from financial disaster in return for her hand in marriage.
Celimene has no intention of marrying any of them, but she’s willing to use them for her own ends, manipulating their affections in the hope that they will help her before she has to turn down their proposals.
On top of this, though, she’s still grieving for her husband, lost at sea two years before, with whom she is still mournfully in love.
But then she’s told that Frank is ridiculously rich (He isn’t.) and that he has influence at court (He doesn’t.) and she quickly figures that if she can manipulate Frank, she can give the three fops the brush off. So she starts to encourage Frank’s love, with results that surprise her.
As soon as she begins pretending to be in love with Frank, she realizes that, in spite of herself, she’s already and truly in love with him. This shouldn’t be a problem, except that even though she loves him, she doesn’t much like him, and even if she did, she can’t bring herself to be unfaithful to her dead husband’s memory.
Things are further complicated by Celimene’s cousin, the innocent and pure-hearted and ridiculously honest Elainte, who, in spite ofherself, has fallen deeply, madly, and ferociously in lust with Frank. This leads to one of the play’s funniest scenes in which the demure and dainty Elainte, played by an appealingly wide-eyed and squeaky-voiced Jenn Gambatese, attempts to wrestle Frank into seducing her.
Meanwhile, Frank’s best friend, Philante, who is in love with Elainte, dashes frantically about looking for help trying to woo her while trying to live down (or live up to) his sudden and (we presume) undeserved notoriety as a closet transvestite, the three fops parade in and out, vying with each other to look most ridiculous in Celemine’s and the audience’s eyes, Celimene’s best friend, Arsinoe, schemes to ruin Celimene’s chance at happiness, because scheming to ruin people’s chances at happiness is what she does, and a dutiful but increasingly frustrated servant attempts to serve tray after tray of canapes that no one seems to think of as finger food so much as flinger food.
The air above the stage is often full of flying hors d’oeuvres.
If you’re familiar with The Misanthrope, you can see that Ives has allowed himself to stray from his source material.
But The School for Lies is more of an homage than an adaptation. It’s Ives’ play, not Moliere’s, although Ives makes sure to stay true to Moliere’s spirit as much as he can. One of the ways he does that is with his use of rhyme.
For some reason, 17th Century French theater audiences were fond of rhymed couplets. Tragedy, satire, or farce, plays were expected to be in rhymed verse, and Moliere was good at giving audiences what they wanted. But, Ives has noted, the form jars on modern ears. It worked back then because, as one of his characters tells us in a short prologue, those plays were written in French, adding as if it’s a rare dialect of Klingon, which nobody speaks anymore, except the French.
So, while The School for Lies is in verse and Ives uses rhymes, he uses them in his own fashion. Mostly he couples them, but then sometimes he spaces them out. He uses them internally, so that they pop up and pop out within lines, and he uses them fast and furiously, letting one come tumbling in after the other until they’re in danger of piling up, with one rhyming word rear-ending the one ahead of it (“That kook’s a duke?”). He uses rhymes to punch up thoughts and he uses rhymes as punchlines. Often the rhyme is the joke. He uses rhymes to show how funny it is that some words rhyme and he uses them to show how funny it is that some words don’t (like “leisure” and “amnes-yer”). He uses rhymes to slip things like anachronisms past the audience and he uses anachronisms (for example, rhyming “hell” with “LOL”) just for the sake of the rhyme.
It’s a lot of fun, but the verbal games threaten to take the play totally out of itself. There’s plenty of breaking of the fourth wall anyway, as characters step out of scenes to address the audience and, sometimes, to talk to each other as characters trying to figure out what the heck is going on. The School for Lies plays very close to the line of Marxian absurdity (as in Groucho, Chico, and Harpo) but then veers away to play close to another line, that of Pythonesque absurdity from which it then makes darts at the Brechtian and Becketian, not to mention the Wodehousian and even, just to keep things shaken up, the Shakespearean.
What keeps the play grounded not exactly in reality but in a world where real human feelings matter is, besides Ives’ intelligence and self-restraint, director Walter Bobbie’s light but skillful touch as he steers things up to those lines and then back at just the right moment and by his cast.
When I first saw scenic designer John Lee Beatty’s nearly monochromatic set---sort of a cream with the faintest hint of strawberries---I thought, Well, this is pretty but maybe a little too cool for farce. But the stage is very quickly warmed up by William Ivey Long’s crayon bright costume designs and then, and even more so, by the pure, radiant, human likability of the very talented cast, particularly his two leads.
Out of all his characters, Ives plays the fewest games with Celimene. She’s the one he allows to speak most like herself and as herself, as opposed to as his puppet. And Mamie Gummer makes the most of it.
As I said, Gummer glows. Against a darker background, they wouldn’t have had to light the stage. And she’s a remarkably intelligent and subtle actress for her age. (She’ll turn twenty-eight in August.) Emotions and thoughts ripple and dance lightly across her face. Nothing is forced, nothing is false. She makes Celimene a real person, in spite of herself, and I mean that as Gummer plays her Celimene can’t help being a decent person with real feelings despite her intention and need to be a cold-hearted and cynical manipulator of other people’s feelings. If anything, Gummer’s performance is a little too natural, a little too sincere, and she seems to be in danger of fading out of this play to reappear on some stage across town where they’re doing Chekhov or one of Shakespeare’s more melancholy comedies. But whenever that appears to be happening she snaps back in a second with a born comedian’s forceful determination to get her fair share of the laughs.
Hamish Linklater as Frank is never in danger of fading. His Frank can be bitter, biting, mean, melancholy, brittle, and brutally…well…frank. But dressed all in black, tall and goofily handsome, with a rich light barritone voice that he can use to give some of his more outrageous speeches the suggestion of song, Linklater is an infectiously good-natured and solid presence throughout.
The supporting cast, led by the cute but surprisingly lusty Gambatese, is a match for the leads. Holm Lee is a hearty and affable good sport as not a cross-dresser, he swears, Philante, and Alison Fraser reaches just the right note of cackling meanness without turning the scheming Arsinoe into a dyed and over-rouged Wicked Witch of Versailles.
As Celimene’s trio of ridiculous suitors, Frank Harts, Rick Holmes, and Matthew Maher are individually funny in their respective vanities. Harts’ Clitander is vain of his influence at court. Holmes’ Oronte is vain of his (non-existent) talent as a poet. And Maher’s Acaste is vain about his stupidity---seriously. He is just smart enough to know he isn’t smart but he can’t think of any reason why he is enjoying success in life as a courtier and would-be lover except that being stupid must be a valuable personality trait that needs to be cultivated. Together the three make up a riotous triptych of Vanity ad absurdum.
But special mention must go to Steven Boyer, who doubles as Celimene’s prim, proper, and fussy butler---he’s the unfortunate bearer of the soon-to-be airborne canapes---and Frank’s not the least bit prim, proper, or fussy manservant. Boyer steps neatly back and forth between the two roles until Ives decides to make him---one of him---aware of the predicament all the other characters have been dealing with throughout the play. It’s a moment that brings down the house.
Photos by Joan Marcus, provided by the Classic Stage Company.
First time I saw a picture of Mamie Gummer I thought, “She looks like a young Meryl Streep.” When you see her onstage, the resemblance is even more striking. Turns out, there’s a reason for it.
I'm off to the city tonight to review a play, The Heir Apparent at Classic Stage Company. Looking forward to it and I hope you'll look forward to my review. But...these trips down and back take a bite out the wallet in gas, tolls, and parking, and as you know things aren't all that flush here in Mannionville. So, if you like what goes on around here and enjoy my play reviews and you can swing it, please consider making a donation. It would be a real help and much appreciated.
Thanks your patience and thanks for reading the blog!
You’ve heard me say all this before and don’t need to hear me say it again, but I’ve got to vent.
Economies don’t exist apart from the societies that contain them. An economy is just the record of how people in a society feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as they go about the daily routine of being human beings. A bad society can have a healthy economy, but a good society cannot survive a bad economy. Bad as in morally reprehensible. It matters how we go about feeding, clothing, and sheltering ourselves as much as how we’re paying for it and how much money we’re making off it. Obviously, if we’re paying for it by working our fellow citizens to death and providing only minimal food, shelter, and clothing to most of our fellow citizens, and if we’re denying them the rights and freedoms and opportunities to live as human beings are meant to live, then it doesn’t matter if the bills are paid and the money’s piling up. The society being financed will be rotten. This is why China is not ever a model for how we should do things no matter how many new billionaires they create in a year. This is why austerity, which doesn’t work as its champions claim anyway, is bad---it’s based on the idea that people should be willing to give up more and more of what makes a society livable and humane in order to keep the bills paid and the money piling up; that is, it gets everything backwards.
Our economy is in the hands of people who think only in terms of having and maintaining an economy and they believe the purpose of an economy is to pile up money, not to finance a working society.
To them people are only either resources to be mined (consumers) or tools to work the mines (employees).
Wealth is abstracted from its purpose. It is an end---the end---in itself.
They want a big heaping pile of wealth and aim only to build the pile higher.
Whatever doesn’t contribute to building the pile higher is worse than wasteful. It’s a form of theft.
Paying people to build the pile higher takes away from building it even higher.
The people who run the economy would very much like not to have to spend any money to make money. They are convinced this is achievable. It’s just a matter of finding a way to get things done without having to pay anyone to do it.
Automation, outsourcing, wage theft, wholesale layoffs, just flat out not hiring, keeping workers terrified of losing their jobs and so desperate to hold onto them that they’ll accept fewer and fewer benefits and less and less money are some of the things being done to drive the economy in that direction. Encouraging workers to begrudge their fellow citizens decent pay and benefits is another tactic they’re trying.
Of course this is insanely short-sighted. It’s destructive. It’s immoral. And it’s inhuman.
But we’re talking about people who have the outlooks and moral compasses of dung beetles.
They see and care about nothing but the big ball of shit they’re rolling towards the great big pile of shit they call WEALTH.
After they get rid of all the employees, the next step is to figure out how to get consumers to hand over their money without having to provide any good or services in return.