Before the reading. Chairs soon to be occupied by Farran Smith Nehme, Matt Zoller Sietz, Anne Helen Peterson, and James Wolcott who will gather to discuss Farran’s new novel, Missing Reels. Rare Book Room. Third Floor. Strand Bookstore. New York City. Seven p.m. tonight. Wednesday. January 7, 2015.
I have a vague memory of Underdog’s forearm deflating one year, but don’t recall any other balloon disasters this dire:
During one of the first [Macy’s] Thanksgiving Day Parades, organizers thought it would be a good idea to end the festivities by letting go of the ropes and watching the balloons fly away. As they rose into the sky, most of them popped from the air pressure, leaving dozens of children stunned and saddened watching their favorite cartoons blow up in front of them.
This is a photo from the second parade in 1928. Not sure if that’s the parade when the balloons were released and I don’t know who the character in front is. His costume looks a little Arabian Nights-ish so maybe he’s that era’s Aladdin.
By the way, Hendrickson thinks the Aladdin character might have been intended to be the comedian Eddie Cantor. Could be, but I think that changes the date of the photo. Vazquez has it as 1928. Hendrickson says 1934. But Cantor starred in a movie called Ali Babba Goes to Town in 1937.
Tuesday morning. on my way to the Clinton Global Initiative.
Driver of the cab I took from Grand Central to the Sheraton Towers couldn’t pull up to the curb along the stretch of Sixth Avenue closest to the corner of 52nd where I asked him to drop me off because of the long line of other cabs parked bumper to bumper that reached halfway to 51st. He got as close as he could, essentially double-parking gunwale to gunwale with another cab. Left me about six inches in which to maneuver myself and my effects---briefcase, cane, a couple of books, a bottle of water---out the door.
I suppose I should have gotten out on the far side but traffic was heavy and I’m not as nimble as I once was. I didn’t think I could make it out before an onrushing car sheared off the open door, taking me with it.
I eased myself out as carefully as I could but I bumped the door as I hoisted myself to my feet and the door bumped the rear door of one of parked cabs.
Bumped is overstating it.
What’s between a bump and a kiss?
Whatever it was it didn’t leave a mark. I checked. Not a dent. Not a ding. Not a nick. Not a scratch. Not any damage at all I could see.
I’m not sure what I’d have done if there had been. Probably shrugged it off. It was a cab in New York City after all. A New York City taxi cab without dents or dings must be as rare as a pirate without an eye patch.
Apparently I found that pirate.
The driver jumped out.
“You bumped my cab!” he shouted.
I didn’t point out it was more of a nudge.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“You bumped my cab!” he shouted again. He was middle-aged. Neatly dressed in slacks and a zippered cardigan. Distinguished looking. Middle Eastern with closely trimmed snow white hair and a meticulously groomed silver and gray mustache.
“I’m sorry,” I said again. I’d have thought a simple but sincere apology would have covered it. There was no damage, I hadn’t done it intentionally, it’s something that happens all the time to everybody. Everybody’s been a door bumpee or door bumper at some point. Multiple points. I elaborated on my apology. “I’m very sorry,” I said.
“You’re sorry? You’re sorry?” he said. “You bump my cab and that’s all you say? You’re sorry?”
I didn’t know what else to say. Of course it occurred to me that what he wanted me to say was something along the lines of “Here’s ten bucks? Is that sorry enough for you?” But there was something theatrical about his anger. It was like he was playing the part of an irate Middle Eastern cabbie in a movie, one who’d somehow gotten in the way of the hero during a chase. And I wondered if he wanted me to play a part in that movie in his head too, if he wanted me to argue with him, say something more like, “Yeah, I bumped your fucking cab, what about it?” and the drama would take off from there.
I wanted to just walk away. My cab had driven away and I was standing in the street unprotected from oncoming traffic. that might swerve. Drivers might spot a parked cab in time to swerve but might not notice a pedestrian until I rolled off their hood. But I couldn’t decide where to walk to. My driver had left me off a long, painful hobble from the corner and much longer hobble to the front end of the line of parked cabs. The cabs weren’t the only things blocking me from sidewalk. All along Sixth and up 52nd as far as I could see were metal barricades to keep the sidewalks clear around the Sheraton.
A former President was inside. A former Secretary of State too. And their daughter. And dozens of foreign heads of state and foreign and domestic dignitaries. Along with more than a handful of movie stars and other celebrities. The Secret Service was out in force and making their presence felt. In a few minutes, I’d be having a polite but all business encounter with a short,young, squarely built agent with a dark ponytail and SECRET SERVICE stenciled on her kevlar vest who, probably wondering how I’d gotten inside the barricades to begin with let me know with a glare and a wave as swift, strong, compact, and unmistakable in meaning as a karate chop that I was on what she regarded as the wrong side of her street and, cane or no cane, I’d better cross to the other side now.
She would be the second agent I’d have dealings with in a space of five minutes.
The cabbie seemed to take my hesitation as a sign I’d gone up in my lines and, determined to continue the drama and get our big scene restarted, prompted me with my cue again.
“You’re sorry? You go around bumping people’s cars and say you’re sorry. That makes it all right? You’re sorry?”
Suddenly I knew what my next line should be. I wasn’t intentionally playing along. It was just reflex.
“What, you’ve never done it yourself?”
He was ready.
“No! Never! I have never done that!”
“In all your years behind the wheel? Not once?”
“Not once! I know how to be careful.”
“That’s amazing,” I said. “You’re amazing. You should write a manual. Tell people your secret.”
I thought that was pretty good. Worth a chuckle from the audience. If we had an audience. Which, it turned out, we did.
Three tall, square-shouldered, square-jawed guys with the names of their agencies on their body armor had ambled up to the barricades.
The third guy actually looked the most intimidating.
They were laughing.
I tried to think of a topper.
The cabbie was quiet but probably not because he was waiting for my comeback so he could top it. I suspect was thinking it might be a good time to cut the scene short. He wasn’t sure he wanted this type of an audience.
Didn’t matter. The guys had decided the show was over. The city cop lowered the curtain, so to speak, by swinging open a section of the barricades. That’s when I saw they hadn’t chosen any old spot from which to watch the comedy play out. They were standing where there was just enough space between the bumpers of two of the parked cabs for me to limp through. They’d come over to help me out.
I made my exit without bowing to take a bow and the cabbie did the same, getting back into his cab to wait for a fare or another, better opportunity to relieve his boredom with some impromptu street theater.
The three guys were grinning merrily as I made my way between the cabs and through the gateway they’d made for me.
“Welcome to New York,” I said and I hope they caught that I wasn’t being sarcastic.
I was grateful to them. I was grateful to the cabbie. They’d made my day by reminding me.
10 AM. New York City. Wish I could walk because I’d much rather have hiked the fifteen or so blocks from Grand Central to the Sheraton Towers where the Clinton Global Initiative’s being held instead of cabbing it. Absolutely gorgeous day and even the little bit of it that slipped in through the cab’s open windows is delicious. What I really wish is that I could have walked to Bryant Park and spent the day at a table in the shade there and covered the whole shindig virtually from there. So I was surprised when the young volunteer checking me in at the Sheraton and handing me my press pass said cheerfully, “It’s cold out there, isn’t it?”
I couldn’t help a chuckle. “You’re cold?”
“Oh yes,” she said. “I wish we could have summer back!”
Self-doubting and self-effacing singer-songwriter Gretta (Keira Knightley standing at the mic center) leads her makeshift band in a guerrilla recording session on a Manhattan rooftop while her self-appointed and previously self-destructive manager and producer Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo on bass second from right) joins in in John Carney’s romantic comedy Begin Again.
The first shot of Mark Ruffalo in Begin Again is one of the most frightening images of a movie star I’ve ever seen. It’s horrifying and repulsive but irresistible and riveting in the way human wreckage often is.
We’re in a bar. New York City. Somewhere in the Village. Ruffalo---his character, whoever he is---is obviously drunk. And this isn’t that kind of bar. The clientele aren’t here to drink. They’re here to listen. And talk. It’s an open-mic night. We know how those go. But it isn’t just that he’s drunk that marks him as out of place. He’s alone, for one thing. He’s middle-aged for another. Most of the crowd that we can see are in their twenties. He’s a worn-down, beaten-down fortysomething. And he’s a mess. Uncombed, unshaven, probably unwashed. Rumpled head to toe to a degree that says he’s not just had a hard night but a hard year. Or two. Or three. Actually, we find out later, seven. But what really let’s us know he’s an outsider here is that he’s listening to the music.
Like I said, we know how open-mic nights go. The singer songwriter alone on stage with her guitar is struggling to hold the lackadaisically friendly crowd’s drifting attention and losing the struggle. Her problem is she can’t belt it out over the noise of a dozen conversations. She doesn’t have the confidence, in her voice, in her playing, in her song, which she wrote, in herself. We know this about her because we’ve already met her. She doesn’t want to be up there. She had to be practically pushed up onto the stage. But this guy is all attention.
He stands there, his bleary eyes wide-open and as round as pie plates, his scruffy cheeks stretched by a grin of maniacal idiocy.
If she could see him past the spotlights she’d be terrified.
If we didn’t know and thought this was a different kind of movie we’d be worried for her.
But then the story jumps back in time to that morning and we begin to follow him through his awful and increasingly self-destructive day---since he’s been on a downward slide for a while he doesn’t have much of a self left to destruct, what we’re watching is him at the his rope with his grip beginning to slip---and we see him throw away what’s left of his career, further alienate his already alienated teenage daughter, show us why his marriage failed, and wander aimlessly at last into this bar, bringing us right back to where we met him, presenting us with the same image as we began with, only now we know what’s causing that awful grin.
It’s not mania.
It’s not idiocy, it’s bliss.
And now that we know what’s behind it, it’s not awful anymore.
I’ll have to go back and rewatch when it comes out on DVD to see if Ruffalo and director John Carney are playing games here and they shot the scene over making subtle changes or if they’re being clever in another way, knowing that context is everything and our now knowing that context or thinking we know it will change our perceptions. Either way, it’s a neat trick.
The guy is listening. Intently. Sympathetically. Appreciatively. But not just to what’s on stage. He’s also hearing what could be up there. And we get to listen with him. And we know what he knows. She’s good. She could be a lot better. She will be a lot better, if he has anything to do with it, because we know something else now too, he’s good at what he does too. Well, was good. But he will be good again. He’s grinning like he is because he knows that. He hears it. He’s listening to the sound of his redemption.
Hers too, as it turns out.
I’m going to stop here for some liner notes on spoiler alerts.
I try very hard not to give too much away in movie reviews. Some things I just don’t mention or at least I don’t go into detail mentioning. Surprise twists, endings, important characters’ ultimate fates, visual and technical effects that are better seen than read about. But some things can’t be written about without giving away plot points and those things are often what’s good (or bad) about a movie and the reason I liked it (or didn’t) and think you would (like it or not like it) too. And that’s the case with Begin Again. I haven’t been able to think of how talk about everything that’s good about it (and there’s a lot) without giving things away. This is especially true of Kiera Knightley’s character and her performance, which are the heart of the movie.
So you might want to stop reading here because, you know, spoilers.
Ruffalo plays Dan Mulligan---golfers will get the joke in his last name---a record producer, once one of the most successful indie producers in the business. He had a gift for discovering and nurturing new talent. He heard things others missed. But it’s been a long time since he’s had a success. Probably because he’s been listening with only half an inner ear for years, as he’s been paying more attention to the noises made by his self-pity. His now ex-wife broke his heart and he let that break his spirit. But without warning, he’s finally heard something promising again. Knightley.
Knightley plays Gretta, the diffident and reluctant singer songwriter, and after Ruffalo introduces himself and makes his pitch to take her under his wing and guide her to stardom, the story jumps back in time again, and we follow her path to this bar, which began several months before, mostly happy months for her, well, apparently happy, although today’s been a very bad day, and we learn how she got here.
She was dragged by her best friend, another singer songwriter, who hoped it would distract her from her grief over her break-up with her boyfriend, yet another singer-songwriter, although a much more successful one. In fact, he’s just had his big break and is on his way to a level of stardom even higher than the one Mulligan’s promising Gretta.
This is the sob story we might expect we’re being set up for. There’s an note of self-destructiveness in Gretta too.
She wasn’t being overshadowed by her boyfriend’s talent. She was hiding her own behind it. And we see that she was in the process of using his success as an excuse to erase all trace of herself as a musician, an artist, and even a person in her own right.
Reluctantly, doubtfully, but with a burst of determination brought on by anger that surprises her, and after Googling him to make sure he’s not just the drunken, maniacal idiot he appears to be, Gretta accepts Dan’s offer and he gets right to work the next day.
He takes her to see his former partner Saul (played with a soft-spoken wariness by Mos Def, again appearing under his real Yasiin Bey). That doesn’t work out. Saul can’t hear what Dan hears and he no longer trusts Dan’s ear.
Without money to rent a studio, Dan gets the idea to record Gretta wherever they can find a space to set up. On the street if they have to. The idea carries them away. They’ll do it on the street, in an alley, on a rooftop, on a subway platform, in the rowboats on the lake in Central Park, under the arch in Washington Square Park. They’ll record her live and work into the final mix whatever background noise the mics pick up. The voices of the city will sing harmony. The music of its streets, parks, and subways will provide backup. The album will be a musical portrait of New York!
It’s a crazy idea, but it just might work!
Of course it does work. We know it will work. We’re told flat out it’s going to work when Gretta mentions a Judy Garland movie. Not Wizard of Oz and not A Star Is Born. One of her “Let’s Put on a Show!” movies of the kind she routinely did with Mickey Rooney. Begin Again is that kind of movie.
With a happy ending practically guaranteed, the suspense is in how that happy ending will come about and in discovering exactly what happy will mean for Gretta and Dan.
Director John Carney, who also wrote the script, uses what we know based on the conventions of romantic comedies is going to happen to set up expectations in order to surprise us by not meeting those expectations or meeting them in eccentric and roundabout ways.
Example: Convention sets up to expect that Gretta’s the real talent and her ex-boyfriend, Dave Kohl, a flash in the pan, a one-hit wonder, if not a downright phony. She is talented. But he’s a star. Not just a major talent, either. An artist. One who knows how to incorporate his audience and their expectations into his performances. He doesn’t manipulate them or play up to them (or down to them). He works with them. His art, his music, is collaborative in more than the usual way. Gretta doesn’t learn she’s as good as him, never mind better. She simply learns she’s an artist in her own way and that she has responsibilities to herself because of that, which, by the way, doesn’t exempt her from responsibilities to her other people.
One of those people is Kohl. Another is Dan.
This is how it goes throughout. We know what’s going to happen and then it turns out we didn’t know or didn’t quite know it. Characters get some of what they want, more of what they need, it just turns out, as the writer George V. Higgins said about how happy endings turn often turn out in life, it just doesn’t look like what they expected. Or what we expected for them.
We know Gretta and Dan will get their album made. We know it’ll be a success. We know Gretta will blossom as an artist. We know Dan will sober up and get his act together. We know Dan and his daughter Violet will work things out and we know know Gretta will be the agent (angel) of their reconciliation. We know Dan and Gretta’s partnership will turn into friendship which will turn into…
…a conflict with something else we know, which is that Dan and his ex-wife Miriam will start making moves towards getting back together.
Dan and Gretta and Dan and Miriam both can’t end happily!
We know we’re supposed to root for Gretta but we can’t help rooting for Miriam too, especially since she’s played by Catherine Keener whose career practically exists for directors who need someone immediately sympathetic and whom we root for even she’s in the wrong, as Miriam is and isn’t here.
This conflict of rooting interests makes us lose track of what we really should be rooting for. That’s a good thing, in case I’m not being clear.
This is the first time I’ve seen Knightley play an ordinary human being coping with ordinary problems. She’s in love, but it’s not a grand romance. She’s torn between two men, but her dilemma’s not even potentially tragic. And there are no pirates.
By ordinary I mean a type we could run into any and every day, have run into many times, in my case, a not all that rare breed of young artiste with talent and intelligence and without ego and vanity whose only ambition is to be able to do what she does well the way she wants to do it. Gretta is not a star in the making or in her own head. Which isn’t to say she’s fine with the way she is. Her problem is she’s too accepting of what she’s let herself become, which is a little too ordinary. Knightley conveys this with the way she slouches inside her dowdy outfits of shapeless gingham dresses and baggy tops worn over torn jeans with flat-soled sandals and slip-ons. This is someone who hit on a style in college and has stuck with it because it’s easy and because it accomplishes what she needs it to, make her not quite invisible but easy to overlook.
But there’s something about the angularity of her carriage---she’s all elbows and knees---and the set of her face that tells us that what we know from movie conventions, that she’ll clean up nice, won’t have the effect those conventions might be leading us to expect. Dress her up, pin her hair back, hand her a lipstick and she’ll turn out to be…not Keira Knightley. She’ll still be Gretta, an ordinarily attractive young woman who’s learned a few style tips that don’t really matter to her.
What matters to her is her songwriting and her music. To convey that, Knightley had to learn how to sing and play the guitar. I can’t tell you if how well she learned to play. Her fingers look to be doing the right things but who knows how things got fixed up in the sound studio. Same with her singing, but it sounds to me as if the sound engineers left her voice sounding as close to natural as they could, and that leaves her sounding like what she is, someone who can sing well enough to please a crowd in a club or in a small hall and even sell albums but who’s really singing to the stars who she hopes will cover her songs to give them an idea of how they should sing them.
Knightley’s best talent as an actress is her knowing how to employ that great, wonderful, screen-eating smile of hers. In Anna Karenina part of the horror was in watching that smile grow brittle and then desperate and then fade. In Begin Again, it doesn’t exactly do the opposite, it doesn’t need to return because it’s not gone away. But it takes time for it to regain its full force and for Gretta to let go and stop shutting it down whenever she feels it beaming on too long.
But there’s a whole lot more happening on her face besides the smile. Gretta, secure in her belief that she’s almost never the focus of anyone’s attention, feels free to let every thing she feels and thinks show.
Here’s one of those spoilers. In a scene late in the movie, Gretta goes to see Dave perform in concert for the first time since their break up and his rise to stardom. He wants her to take him back, as we knew from the first he would, and she’s exacted a promise from him, as a test of whether or not he deserves it, to perform one of the songs they wrote together her preferred way despite his fans’ love of his arrangement. And at first he seems to be passing the test. All at once, though, he gives in to the wishes of the crowd who want to sing and dance along to the song as they know it.
And the succession of expressions that cross her face---melting adoration, at first, then shock as he switches from doing the song her way to his, then hurt, then anger, then sardonic amusement, then realization, then acceptance, then understanding, appreciation, and a new but unromantic affection---is a delight.
My favorite of these expressive moments, though, occurs when she and Dan are on the subway listening to the songs on his playlist on his smart phone. All at once she surprises him and herself by shimmying her shoulders to the music. It’s sexy and Knightley shows us that Gretta knows it’s sexy and is enjoying feeling sexy but then can’t continue to enjoy it because she’s enjoying something else, laughing at herself over it all. And there’s that smile.
Ruffalo plays Dan as somewhat the opposite of the wayward brother he played in You Can Count on Me. In that movie his character was someone you knew you couldn’t count on who managed to charm you into counting on him anyway. In Begin Again, Dan is someone you feel you ought to be able to count on but is determined to prove you’d be wrong to do it.
In You Can Count On Me, he had to be charming enough that we understood why people counted on him despite themselves. In Begin Again, he has to be charming enough that we can see why the very few people who still count on him aren’t out of their minds but not so charming we forget why everybody else thinks they know better.
Ruffolo makes Dan a battered, ragged, popped-seamed, stuffing-leaking, buttons-missing teddy bear of a man, the kind of teddy bear who appears not worth repairing but you keep around for sentimentality’s sake. Dan puts himself back together stitch by stitch but the fun of it is that we don’t actually see the mending. Ruffalo just has Dan looking and acting a little bit better each time he reappears. With each new scene we think “Something’s different” and then Ruffalo makes us have to look for what that is.
As Dan’s half-heartedly rebellious teenage daughter, Violet, Hailee Steinfeld, who earned an Academy Award nomination playing Mattie Ross in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, shows she wasn’t herself a one-hit wonder. She’s clearly working on growing as an actress and like Gretta doesn’t seem to be concerned with stardom but with being good at what she does and continuing to do it. Her character is more than conventional, it’s a cliche, but her performance is marked by interesting and intelligent touches that mark Violet as herself and Steinfeld as what she’s said she wants to be in the future, a writer and director.
As Miriam, Dan’s exasperated ex-wife and Violet’s worried mother, Keener does what she does best, evince the world-weary resignedness of an intelligent, resourceful, and once happier woman who has some of the stuffing knocked out of by life but has mostly gotten over it and long since decided she’s not going to choose between hope and despair and just deal with things as they come.
Rap star CeLo Green plays a big-hearted angel of a rap star named Troublegum, one of Dan’s discoveries from way back when who has not forgotten all he owes him and to whom it doesn’t matter whether or not Dan can be counted on anymore. He simply loves Dan for the good he did him and believes that when you love someone you are always looking out for them. Rob Morrow shows up for a brief but wicked cameo as a music company executive in yellow-tinted glasses whose seductive smile and jovial declarations of love for anyone who amuses him (and promises to make him money) lets us know he’s the devil. Bey---Mos Def---plays another kind of devil, an underminer and a planter and exploiter of doubt.
As Dave Kohl, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine acts at least as well as he sings, convincing off the stage as on playing a basically decent guy who’s being a jerk and is tempted to become an even bigger jerk but who isn’t at heart a jerk and doesn’t want to be one. And as Gretta’s best friend Steve, a fellow singer and songwriter, James Corden is cast as the type of open-hearted, eager to please nice guy convention lets us know has a secret sorrow and is destined for heartbreak he’ll suffer with puppy dog eyes and a mournful smile of acceptance that he then doesn’t play. Doesn’t have to play. Steve is a happy guy having fun being what he is a young artist in New York lucky enough to be able to do what he likes to do and that makes Corden’s scenes some of the most fun scenes in the movie.
Final verse. Along with everything else, Begin Again is what Gretta’s album is meant to be, a loving portrait of New York City set to music. And while I can say that the portrait of New York is recognizable and loveable, I don’t have Dan’s ear and can’t tell you if the music is truly good. What I can tell you is that I liked it and all the songs Gretta is supposed to have written sound like they could have been written by her. And that’s probably as important because, when the show’s over and the band’s packed up and left the stage, Begin Again is Gretta’s story, the story of a music industry Cinderella who becomes her own fairy godmother and fairy godmother to others, and it’s her music that gives her the strength and the ability to do it.
Begin Again, written and directed by John Carney. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, Catherine Keener, James Corden, Yasiin Bey, CeLo Green, and Rob Morrow. Rated R. Now in theaters.
Off to the big city for the presentations of the 2014 Hillman Prizes for Journalism. I’ll be tweeting from my seat in the front row at the New York Times Center, maybe even doing a little live-blogging starting around 6 PM. You can follow along on Twitter by checking in at #hillman2014 or jumping into my feed or you just sit right here and watch the action unfold in the Twitter widget over in the left-hand sidebar.
Lecherous miser, saucy maid, wily servant, impecunious nephew, sweet young thing: Paxton Whitehead, Claire Karpen, Carson Elrod, Dave Quay, and Amelia Pedlow scheme, connive, and rhyme their way through The Heir Apparent, David Ives’ faithful in its own very funny fashion adaptation of an Eighteenth Century French farce, now enjoying an exuberant run at Classic Stage Company.
Who was it said, “The French are funny, sex is funny, comedy is funny, and yet no French sex comedies are funny”?
Probably somebody trying to be funny.
Also somebody who hadn’t yet seen Classic Stage Company’s current production of The Heir Apparent. Which is French. Technically. Which is about sex. Some of the time. Which is a comedy. Definitely. Which is funny. Very.
The Heir Apparent is the brilliant 21st Century American playwright David Ives’ word-happy, rhyme-crazy, mind-bending, head-spinning, tongue-twisting, joke-quip-gag-and pun-juggling adaptation of Jean-Francois Regnard’s early 18th Century French farce Le Legataire Universal about the impecunious nephew---Is there any other kind?---of a lecherous old miser---What else would he be?---in love with the sweet young daughter---Naturalment!---of a domineering and avaricious widow---You were expecting kind-hearted and charitable?---who with the help of his wily servant---You saw that wily coming a kilometer away, didn’t you?---must trick his uncle into making him the sole beneficiary of his will so that the domineering widow will consent to his marrying her sweet, young daughter.
And then there’s a lawyer…
Directed by John Rondo, whom I imagine running rehearsals drawing X’s, arrows, and O’s on a whiteboard, The Heir Apparent scores laughs from every corner of the CSC’s thrust stage. There’s much breaking of the fourth wall. Jokes are pulled in from wherever they can be found even if Ives has to reach all the way from 1702 to 2014 to get them. The play references itself and critiques itself as it bounds merrily along. From time to time the characters seem to become vaguely aware they aren’t speaking French and start listening in bafflement at what’s coming out of their mouths. Other times they appear to be on the verge of realizing they’re characters in a play, which while mildly confusing them for a moment, doesn’t upset them. Au contraire. It gives them renewed energy and confidence to proceed full-tilt in their absurdities. And all of this is dealt out in rhymed couplets.
The physically nimble, verbally gymnastic cast is led by a rumbling, grumbling Paxton Whitehead as the miserly uncle, Geronte, and Carson Elrod as the increasingly carried away by his own wily genius wily servant Crispin.
Crispin, as afflicted by a meta-consciousness as any literary construct whose creator has endowed with the ability to read himself, appears to know that as a wily servant in a comedy his job is to cause and increase confusion as the best method for bringing about harmony, understanding, and general happily-ever-aftering. Reassured by the trope, he’s confident that any crazy idea that pops into his head must be a good idea even if it strikes him as crazy. He also knows that it’s in the Wily Servant job description that wily servants have to adopt and drop multiple disguises at a moment’s notice. Again, faith in the trope saves him by assuring him that any disguise he adopts will fool whomever it needs to fool, no matter how obvious and outrageous. In fact, the more obvious and outrageous the more effective the disguise.
With his beady eyes transfixed as if stunned by what he’s just gotten away with and half-amazed and half-terrified by what he’s about to try next, Elrod’s Crispin carries off his schemes and impostures with brio and panache if not aplomb.
Meanwhile, the target of Crispin’s scheming, Whitehead’s Geronte is not a monster of greed and selfishness. He’s more like a big baby with a baby’s idea of how world is meant to work---it’s all organized to take care of his needs---and a baby’s concept of mine. He’s not being mean about it when he fails to consider his nephew’s and servants’ needs and feelings. He’s just oblivious to the fact that they have needs and feelings that aren’t in complete agreement with his own.
Plus, he’s preoccupied.
Geronte has a tricky digestive tract that demands constant monitoring and regulation. Much of his conversation in the early going involves graphic descriptions of the current state of his personal plumbing.
You haven’t heard scatological humor until you’ve heard it rhymed.
But he’s not so preoccupied he doesn’t recognize he has other bodily functions. Geronte has a lecherous side. But when he decides, apparently on a whim of the moment, to complicate things for his nephew even further by declaring his intention to marry girl himself---today! at two!---it’s not a sure bet either way which he’s the more desirous of acquiring with the match, a frisky and nubile young wife or a combination nurse and laundress on call 24/7.
This is a comedy, comedy is transformative, and Geronte needs transforming. Whitehead takes Geronte through four revisions of himself, including, for one scene of Marx Brothers-worthy hilarity, a temporarily zombiefied version, in which he staggers back from a presumed death to interrupt Crispin in the middle of another imposture, that of Geronte himself, and the two enact an homage to Groucho and Harpo’s mirror scene in Duck Soup.
As parasitical nephews go, Dave Quay's Eraste is one of the most amiable, affable, and considerate ones going. He even manages some sincere affection for his uncle, repugnant and selfish as the old fool can be. Although he's straight-forward in admitting aspects of his life would improve greatly if the old man would just drop off the twig and Geronte makes it hard not to look forward impatiently to that event, he doesn't actually wish his uncle would die. Well, not all the time. He doesn't need Geronte's money right away. He just needs to be named in the will right now. Fortunately, he can rely on his trusty valet Crispin. Fortunately, as well, Eraste has wiles of his own. While Crispin switches madly from imposture to imposture, Eraste's job is to keep his uncle distracted, his (he hopes) future mother-in-law placated, and his beloved reassured that he loves her, is not about to see her married off to his repulsive uncle, and will get that will written and signed---his beloved is no fool and knows where her interests lie. Quay brings it off with wit, intelligence, charm, and only a hint of madness born of panic and desperation.
Amelia Pedlow plays Isabelle as a sweet young thing but a remarkably level-headed sweet young thing. Practical in matters of love, sex and money, clear-eyed about the way her marital interests depend on Eraste's financial scheming, and, a good helpmeet in the making, capable of jumping right in to connive right along with Crispin and Eraste and contribute a few mad ideas of her own.
Pragmatic and fiscally self-interested a couple as they are, Isabelle and Eraste have a vibrant romantic streak that comes out when one or the other of them remembers they're French. Then everything comes to a stop as, with the cooperation of the lighting and music, they leave the play for a moment and take their places for their close up in a New Wave film in which, locked in melodramatic embrace, they exchange passionate endearments...in French of course. Then it's quickly back to business.
Clare Karpen as Geronte’s maid and Crispin’s beloved, Lisette, and Suzanne Bertish as Madame Argante, Isabelle’s coolly cynical and calculating mother, keep the other characters and the play from spinning off into complete madness with their contrasting examples of practicality.
Lisette, who has Geronte under her control thanks to her buxom figure and skill with an enema bag, knows she’s at her most alluring when she’s being most practical. As someone whose job in life is cleaning up other people’s messes, she’s developed a knack for anticipating messes before they happen and if not always able to prevent them then to be right there to mop up, a knack that makes her the perfect partner for a wily but not always careful servant like Crispin.
P.G. Wodehouse’s Lord Ickenham once shuddered at the memory of an aunt who with one withering glance through her lorgnette could knock the stuffing out of meddlesome policemen who forgot their place. Madame Argante doesn’t trifle about with lorgnettes. What she brings to bear is a beguilingly wolfish smile guaranteed to shrivel the heart of the boldest suitor of her daughter.
Oh, and did I mention there’s a lawyer?
David Pittu plays the dimunitive attorney called in to write Geronte’s will, Scruple, who unlike most stage lawyers actually has one, even two. Scruples, that is. He also has an extremely nervous disposition, a fragile vanity, an understanable sensitivity about his height, and a paranoid tendency to think that everything anyone says or does that he doesn’t immediately understand is intended to insult, humiliate, confuse, and cozen him. He happens to be right, in this case, but it’s nothing personal. It’s hilarious watching Pittu, who enters tightly wound, wind himself tighter and tighter as he struggles to maintain his dignity and his sanity as the apparent lunatics running this asylum work him into their mad schemes and counter-schemes.
But the real star of the show is the playwright. Ives’ dialog is written in a knowing, colloquial American English that somehow still sounds convincingly in period. It’s wackily allusive, craftily metaphorical, full of casually tossed off anachronisms, and, as I mentioned, all carefully metered and rhymed. In some cases the rhymes themselves are the joke. In others it’s their naturalness that amazes. In all cases, Ives’ comic genius is a cause for wonder and applause.
I’ve been to comedies before where I was afraid to laugh in case I missed the next joke. But I never saw one before this that made me want to stand up and cheer for a near-rhyme.
The Heir Apparent, by David Ives, adapted from the play by John-Francois Regnard. Directed by John Lando. Set design by John Lee Beatty, costumes by David C. Woolard, and lighting by Japhy Weideman. With Suzanne Bertish, Carson Elrod, Claire Karpen, Amelia Pedlow, David Pittu, Dave Quay, and Paxton Whitehead.
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.
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.
---I remember the maps of the Holy Land. Colored they were. Very pretty. The Dead Sea was pale blue. That’s where we’ll go, I used to say. That’s where we’ll go on our honeymoon. We’ll swim. We’ll be happy…
---You should have been a poet.
---I was. Isn’t that obvious?
Living close but just not close enough to New York City, I just can’t get into town as much as I’d like but feel I should and could if I just made the effort or planned it better. If I had world enough and time and a whopping big pile of cash, I’d be down there every week, seeing a play. I’ve missed an awful lot of good ones over the years but the one I think I’m going to regret having missed most is Waiting for Godot, starring Sir Patrick and Sir Ian, which closed Saturday night.
I’d been hoping to make it, but I had to stick around home.
I was waiting.
Waiting for what, you ask?
A bicycle rider from Belfast. You were ahead me on that one, weren’t you?
By the way, I typed that quotation from Beckett almost verbatim from memory. Back in high school I played Gogo. That was Bert Lahr’s part in the original Broadway production in the 1950s, Sir Ian’s in this one.
Blogging and Twitter pal Philip Turner reports in from NYC: “Out on a late aft bike ride at the Hudson & the great gray bridge, w/the little red lighthouse. Mid 40s, light wind’ Thursday. March 14, 2014.
Be sure to visit Phil at the Mannioville Daily Gazette’s Favorite Blog of the Week, The Great Gray Bridge.
Under the high-arching openwork of the Bayonne Bridge. Oil storage tanks, tanker traffic forever unsleeping. Addiction to oil gradually converging with the other national bad habit, inability to deal with refuse. Maxine had been smelling garbage for a while, and now it intensifies as they approach a lofty mountain range of waste. Neglected little creeks, strangely luminous canyon walls of garbage, smells of methane, death and decay, chemicals unpronounceable as the names of God, the heaps of landfill bigger than Maxine imagines they’d be, reaching close to 200 feet overhead, according to Sid, higher than a typical residential building on the Yupper West Side.
Sid kills the running lights and the motor, and they settle in behind [Isle of Meadows], at the intersection of Fresh and Arthur Kills, toxicity central, the dark focus of Big Apple waste disposal, everything the city has rejected so it can keep on pretending to be itself, and here unexpectedly at the heart of it is this 100 acres of untouched marshland, directly underneath the North Atlantic flyway, sequestered by law from development and disposal, marsh birds sleeping in safety. Which, given the real-estate imperatives running this town, is really, if you want to know, fucking depressing, because how long can it last? How long can any of these innocent critters depend on finding safety around here? It’s exactly the sort of patch that makes a developer’s heart sing---typically, “This Land Is My Land, This Land Is Also My Land.”
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.
Christopher Lloyd (right) as the corrupt and drunken but wise in his lunatic fashion judge Azdak, prepares to deliver one of his signature logically twisted verdicts while his dim but faithful bailiff (Tim Riis Farrell) looks on as if it all makes perfect sense in Classic Stage Company’s Chekhovian---think Star Trek not The Three Sisters---production of Bertholt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
I wonder how much longer Soviet Era Boris and Natasha-We Inwented It First Russian accents will be funny.
Long enough for Classic Stage Company’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle to complete its run, that’s for certain, which is good for Moose and Squeeril and for humans lookink for amoosink and movink night out at theater. The central conceit from which the comedy arises in this rambunctious staging of Bertholt Brecht’s retelling of the Judgment of Solomon is that a provincial troupe of Russian actors has somehow wandered its way from Minsk circa 1958 onto the stage of CSC’s East Village theater circa right now, cheerfully determined to perform despite an extremely tight budget, uncertain abilities, and a generally blissful obliviousness to their own ridiculousness.
When they are “performing,” they speak perfect English, but when various minor emergencies interrupt the “play”---blown fuses, blown lines, missing props, missing actors---and force the “actors” to “break character” and, routinely, break the fourth wall, they talk to each other in Russian---or maybe “Russian.” As far as I could tell, they actors playing the “actors” might have gone to the Sid Caesar School of Languages---and talk to us, the audience, in heavy accents that make them sound like Chekhov---Pavel not Anton---inquiring the way to the nookleer wessels in Star Trek IV.
If you’re like me and think that’s one of the funniest moments in all of Star Trek or, again like me, remember fondly the Wendy’s ad from the 80s showing a Soviet fashion show in which one singularly stern and unglamorous model keeps appearing on the runway in the same utilitarian gray outfit a uniformed announcer calls by a different name each time out---“Day Vear.” “Evenink Vear.” “Sveem Vear.”---this will crack you up all night.
Please to not geet wrong idea, comrades. Funny accents and a few comically-timed small-scale explosions are far from the whole of things.
Many productions of Brecht’s plays are all about the amusing and entertaining ways their directors have decided to deal with one of the dreariest concepts of 20th Century theater as I learned about it in college: that Brechtian means making sure the audience is never allowed to forget they’re watching a play and that what’s happening on stage isn’t real so that they don’t get caught up in their own emotions instead of attending to the ideas being theatrically illustrated and develop sympathy for the characters as if they were people and not just stand-ins for whatever intellectual concepts the playwright intended them to represent.
I’ve never seen this work the way my professors said it was supposed to, because it doesn’t take into account that audiences are people and people have the imaginative capacity to accept all kinds of realities, separately and all at once, including ones in which a broken line of suitcases stands in for a rickety bridge over a mountain gorge and a puppet sharing the stage with live human beings becomes the emotional focus and the heart of the story and the actors in the play are at once themselves and the “actors” they are playing and the characters those “actors” are playing.
Director Brian Kulick and his company of young players and wily veterans led by a growling, skulking, shambling, scratching, galumphing, grinning, cowering, clamoring, leering, lurching, laughing, roaring, rascally Christopher Lloyd approach the clowning with an economical if not always light touch. Their intent seems to be to use the alienating devices not to deflect our feelings but to protect them, as if, if the cast didn’t gentle and jolly us along and occasionally interrupt things just for the sake of a laugh, the play would break our hearts.
I’ve always believed that Brecht was a rank sentimentalist at heart and the story at the center of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, a retelling of the Judgment of Solomon from the “true” mother’s point of view, is one of his most sentimental.
In a time of revolution, in a country that might be Russia, at a time never quite determined but might be 1917, with war raging and armies on the march, Grusha (Elizabeth A. Davis), a young servant in the house of the royal governor, finds herself the protector of the governor’s infant son who has been condemned to die by the revolutionary forces for the crime of having the wrong parents. The governor has been beheaded. The governor’s wife (Mary Testa), self-absorbed in her preparations to flee for her life and more concerned that she get away with as much of her money, jewelry, fancy clothes, and possessions as she can, loses track not just of her child but of the fact that she even has one and leaves the baby behind. Grusha is left to take care of the baby.
She doesn’t want the responsibility. She wants to wait in the village for her soldier fiancé to return from the front. But there’s no one else to hand the baby to and anyway it wouldn’t matter. Grusha looks into the child’s eyes and her fate is sealed.
The rest of Act I is taken up with Grusha’s trials and tribulations as she makes her way towards her brother’s farm in the mountains where she hopes to find refuge.
Grusha is almost impossibly brave, stoic, and earnest as she endures hardship and disease, faces dangers natural and man-made, and fights off and outwits various pursuers. But Davis, a Tony Award nominee last year for her lead role in Once, has successfully taken on the daunting task of giving heart to an essentially one-note character. She manages this not just through her own beautifully sad-eyed, mournful but musically-voiced performance but also through some magically adept puppeteering, the baby Micheal being played by a puppet Davis brings to full expressive life.
There’s a definite Perils of Pauline one-thing-after-another over-muchness in Grusha’s adventures, and besides distancing us from possible over-emotionalism, the comic interruptions and musical interludes---the songs’ English lyrics are by the poet W.H. Auden; CSC’s production features a new score by Tony Award-winning composer Duncan Sheik---help ironize the melodrama, although I think I would have enjoyed it if Kulick had actually made more of that. There are times when, despite the fact that the first act is basically one long chase scene, the characters and the story don’t seem to be going anywhere and things come to a near standstill.
Eventually, Grusha finds relative safety for herself and the baby, whom she has named Michael, through an arranged marriage with a shiftless and conniving famer who’s emotionally but not physically abusive only because he’s too much of a lazy coward. Grusha and Michael are able to hide out and enjoy three years together as mother and child.
Then comes another revolution. The corrupt and violent regime that replaced the first corrupt and violent regime is replaced by a third corrupt and violent regime---and, boy, if Brecht didn’t intend a lesson about human nature and politics in that…---and Michael’s biological mother, the executed governor’s wife, returns to reclaim the family’s property confiscated in the first revolution. That means reclaiming Michael because he’s his father’s heir and she can only get her hands on things through him.
And so Grusha winds up in court before the corrupt and, from all appearances, lunatic judge Azdak, the second act begins, and Christopher Lloyd takes center stage.
Lloyd, who in the first act mostly appears as a nameless and almost characterless narrator coolly and disinterestedly observing Grusha and her troubles with the barest trace of a smile, as if he’s gathering the information he’s relating fro future study, bursts into comic hyperactivity.
He ranges and roars and cringes and crawls and blusters and swaggers all over the stage, making funny and charming Azdak’s many vices and flaws---his knavery, his greed, his vulgarity, his misplaced vanities, his cowardice and drunkenness and self-serving cynicism---and then making clear that there is nothing truly funny or charming in any of it. It’s appalling. Azdak’s appalling. Wonderfully so.
It’s the kind of farcically outsized, Gargantuan performance that can swallow up all a star’s supporting players. But Lloyd knows just when he’s about to go too far and when to pull himself up, pull back, tone it down, and leave the stage to others and then when to throttle it back up full again.
Best of all, he knows exactly when to let it all go and leave Azdak revealed as just as vulnerable and susceptible to Grusha’s heroic decency as we are; in fact, to show us through Azdak our own opened hearts.
The supporting cast of four playing a cast of more than a dozen, Testa, Alex Hurt, Jason Babinsky, Deb Radloff, and Tim Riis Farrell are admirably protean in their switchings between their several roles, with each one given at least one character through which to shine---Hurt as Grusha’s painfully earnest fiancé, Babinsky as the loutish farmer she marries, Radloff as a woman Grusha seeks help from who want to do the right thing but whose nerve fails her at the crucial moment. Testa is hilariously and horrifically imperious and clueless as the governor’s wife and a delight as an addled old woman benefiting from one of Azdak’s more logically twisted rulings. Farrell is a hoot as Azdak’s dimwitted bailiff and touching as Grusha’s well-meaning but timid brother, but for me some of his best moments came when he “broke character” and became the spokesman for the acting company, apologizing to the audience for each mishap and interruption and pleading for help to keep the play going, which of course he does in that heavy Chekhovian---again, Pavel not Anton---accent that cracks me up so much.
I kept hoping he’d ask the way to the nookleer wessels or at least make a reference to Rocky and Bullwinkle, but I guess that would have been taking things too far, even for the sake of Brechtian anti-realism.
Note: Due to prior commitments, Mary Testa had to leave the show. Lea Delaria joined the cast in her place on June 11.
Duncan Sheik talks about his music for The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
And because I can’t resist, that Wendy’s ad:
And Chekhov and the nookleer wessels:
The Caucasian Chalk Circle, by Bertholt Brecht, translation by Ralph Manheim with lyrics by W.H. Auden, directed by Brian Kulick, with music by Duncan Sheik. Featuring Christopher Lloyd, Elizabeth A. Davis, Jason Babinsky, Alex Hurt, Deb Radloff, Tim Riis Farrell, and Mary Testa. At Classic Stage Company, East 13th Street, New York City, through Sunday, June 23. Running time about 2 ½ hours with one intermission. Call 212.352.3101 for tickets or visit the website.