Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Matinee in the City

I had no doubt I would be crazy about the new production of A Little Night Music playing at the Walter Kerr in New York. A bus from Hoboken should get me there in plenty of time, and there was no one in that audience who could possibly be a bigger fan of Bernadette Peters or Elaine Stritch. Many of my blog posts go into detail about buses being late, me having to walk farther than I expect, me being under stress to get where I'm going--I admit there were a few such glitches this time, but I shall spare you those details because I want to tell you about one of the best experiences I've ever had in a theater.I've never seen a production of this particular show before. I saw the original Ingmar Bergman film (Smiles of a Summer Night) which inspired it, and Woody Allen's Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, which surely was influenced by that film. I'll never forget the first time I heard its principal hit song, "Send in the Clowns," sung by Glynis Johns on my little black and white television. But I was saving this one until the right production came along.

Being a fan of Elaine Stritch, I loved her show At Liberty, which I saw on DVD; and her work in Company, of which I have the original cast album. I saw the documentary film of the making of that cast album, in which Stritch is clearly an artist determined to do her best work, and is a wonder when she pulls it off. In A Little Night Music she rises to a level of classiness we know she has, and delivers a comedy line or sings a poignant comedy song ("Liaisons") with, stealing a phrase Sondheim gives us in a later number, "her usual flair." In the audience, we are delighted to see that wheelchair (for the character, of course; Ms. Stritch is hale and hearty at 84) roll her onstage to sing or talk to us.

Bernadette Peters is a national treasure. I saw her in Sunday in the Park with George, and, like at least half of the world, have seen and been won over by her in dozens of movies and television appearances. Her stage presence, charm and knockout voice are always delicious and would enhance any show. This one has been waiting for her until the time was right, which is now.

I had heard some of the music, but was not completely prepared for the lyrics, the integration of song-to-show, and the wonderful Stephen Sondheim surprises of the comedy, romance, melody and dance of this piece. It was a delight to be seeing it all come together and work so elegantly from start to finish. Not only were Peters and Stritch poised and flawless, they were joined by a cast of perfectly matched foils and partners. The program informed me that Alexander Hanson has played not only this role (Frederik) but Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music and numerous other straight and musical plays. He was simply perfect in this show, and the mind can picture him easily in many others--and one hopes to see him in them all. Ramona Mallory was a beauteous and pitch-perfect Anne, but I wasn't entirely prepared for the breathtaking "The Miller's Son" as performed by the beautiful Leigh Ann Larkin in the last act. She made the most of the number, and how.
By this time we were all waiting for Peters to sing "Send in the Clowns" and the whole audience seemed to hold its breath as one from the opening notes and to exhale and roar with applause at its end. The song never stood alone for me as just a love song, but it fits superbly into its place here, with its theatrical and circus references, and befits its singer, who is facing the prospect of life not quite in her grasp as she moves in age and for once is unsure.

There is much in this play. Misguided love, reflections on life, life itself passing before us under the midsummer night's trees, a young man about to misspend his life, an old lady looking forward to her funeral with "the best champagne," and love, love, love--in almost all its forms. And the beautiful music and joie de vivre of Stephen Sondheim. I know why I never saw this show before. I was waiting for this particular production.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Time, The Women, and Facebook

I just noticed it's been almost a month since I've posted here. As usual, waiting for the lightning bolt of inspiration to strike, and I've been quenching that thirst in other ways for some time.

A friend on Facebook wrote last night that she was watching The Women and noticed after some time that there were zero men in the cast. Wasn't there a movie in the 60's about a group of women, maybe one of them a lesbian, maybe some murder or some such thing? What was this movie?

What she was watching the recent chick flick inspired by (not a remake) the old theater chestnut by Clare Booth Luce, The Women. The original is an outlandish comedy about the shallowness of New York society women of the 1930's, with some costumes to die for if they don't kill you first. Feminists today might find the star-laden farce offensive; there is no doubt it insults women with a very superficial and unflattering angle on their lives, but in the context of its day attention must be paid. It's something of a forerunner to "The Real Housewives of New York City" and other incarnations of that franchise. The top actresses of their day, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford and others almost literally sank their teeth into this one.Did I mention the costumes are worth the price of the rental? The original movie version was remade as The Opposite Sex in the 1950's in a forgettable version with June Allyson in the Norma Shearer role, and the addition of at least one male character, the straying husband, played by Leslie Nielson in his leading-man days.

The movie about women from 1966, with its shocking lesbian subplot, (and Candice Bergen doing the honors) was The Group, from the Mary McCarthy novel.

Which leads me clumsily to my other reason for not blogging. When I'm not on Facebook (pretty correctly nailed by Betty White on Saturday Night Live as "a huge waste of time"), I've been pecking at an old idea I've had for a novel. There. My secret is out. I don't want to jinx the effort by talking about it, so that's all I'll say except that I'll post much less often in the near future.

If I can wean myself from Facebook I may actually begin to do some real writing.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Glorious Day and a Wonderful Play

I was getting cabin fever big time, enduring the heat by staying inside near the air conditioner, watching movies and tv shows that didn’t engage me. I needed to get out.

The forecast for Wednesday was for clear skies, dropping humidity, and temperatures peaking at 81 degrees. I could go to the gym Monday and Tuesday and skip the workout Wednesday, which would be matinee day at the theater. And the weather forecast promised the perfect day to do it.

There is always a feast of options in New York. I wanted to see Red, the play about Mark Rothko with Alfred Molina in the lead and Eddie Redmayne as his foil, a performance which had just won the Tony award. For some reason I hadn’t been able to make the right connection online even though I was willing to pay top dollar for this one. Maybe it was solidly sold out for months because of the Tony award. It would be my first choice, but in the back of my mind was the information that the much-heralded production of South Pacific at Lincoln Center would close in a matter of weeks, and I had been hoping I’d catch that. Maybe this would be the time. There was a new play by A.R. Gurney at Lincoln Center too; it dealt with Katherine Cornell and looked to be something I’d like.

What I knew I’d like was a day to roam around in perfect weather in New York. It’s a short bus ride, and there are so many things I haven’t even done since I moved to Hoboken in December 2007 that I wanted and needed a day to do whatever struck me. There is an exhibition of King Tut’s treasures somewhere in the theater district, and it’s time I spent a few hours either at MOMA or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

First, I would secure tickets to a matinee. The weather made standing in the half-price ticket line in Times Square bearable. It can actually be downright pleasant to hear people discussing the different shows up on the board if it’s not bitter cold or swelteringly hot. I had bought some cute clothes so I knew I could hack the city. What to wear? Well, not the white pants I’d bought—in New York you can only wear black or something likewise drably chic and sophisticated. White pants would brand me as an out-of-towner, and even though I am one I don’t want to look it. Black pants, a bright blue camisole almost revealing cleavage, chandelier earrings, a white blazer and new black sandals rather than my ubiquitous flip-flops.

On my way to the tkts. booth in Times Square I passed the King Tut exhibit, the theater with signs for Red, and the theater with a play called Next Fall, which had its excellent New York Times review posted in front. I went onward to the line at 47th and Broadway, the fabled intersection that is the NY shot in every movie since movies began. There I jostled with some 900 other people, some in white slacks, waiting to get to the front and buy a ticket to something and at a discount. I decided to ask for Red even though it wasn’t listed as available, and ask for Next Fall if they couldn’t dig me up a stray lone seat at Red.

I asked the ticket clerk if there was anything for Red, just one seat, and he informed me that Red had closed the past weekend. This floored me. No wonder I couldn’t bring it up online! I felt very out of it, not knowing about this closing--but did get a seat in the middle of the 10th row for Next Fall.

Now it was 11 A.M. I had three hours before the play started. Lunch in a fun neighborhood--which one? I wanted to go to the Museum of Modern Art, but forgot how to get to its train. The little toe on my left foot was beginning to feel as if it might get a blister from the new sandals. I found a train going uptown, but unfortunately it wasn’t going where I wanted to go so I got off at 72nd Street. This was my first exposure in my new life (in Hoboken) to a neighborhood where I had lived some 40 years ago. I hadn’t been in this particular spot in NYC for over 20 years, not even to visit. That subway station, formerly grungy and a little dangerous, was now spruce and clean—and the park above it, once a “needle park,” was renamed Verdi park and was full of leafy trees and nice, clean, relaxed people people of all ethnic groups and ages. I knew there’d be a pharmacy nearby and I could pick up some band-aids and sit on a bench to apply one, taking care of that wee pain in my toe.

Got the band-aids and began walking toward Lincoln Center. Nice walk, but my little toe on the other foot was beginning to hurt too. I found a bench and sat down and bandaged both toes. Blessed relief! Now I was at the corner of Amsterdam and 66th, with the steps to the back of the fountain ahead of me. I always associate that fountain with my best friend Jerry, who met me there one Saturday morning in 1964, when I had first moved to New York. The fountain for some reason was going through its entire dance of highs and lows—as would be seen a few years later in the first movie The Producers when Gene Wilder danced around it. Today the fountain was undulating between very low sprays to the medium height—soothing and elegant in effect.

A stroll around the fountain, memories of that morning when Jerry and I delighted in its scope and playfulness, lunch at a nice place that was once called “O’Neal’s Balloon” (because owner-actor Patrick O’Neal couldn’t legally name it a saloon), and is now a branch of P.J. Clarke’s, and I was ready to go see what this play called Next Fall was all about.

In the little theater now called the Helen Hayes, I had what is to me a perfect seat, right in the middle. I sat amid the matinee ladies I now think of as my personal tribe—women who love plays and see every one they can. A single guy looking to be about 60 came in a bit late (I was a bit early) and sat on my left.

Next Fall starts in a hospital waiting room, with characters we get to know gradually, awaiting the news of a loved one who lies in grave condition after an accident. There are uneasy laughs that grow into big ones as we recognize the genuine concern and love they all have for the young man, Luke, in the nearby room. Flashbacks introduce us to him, an extremely lovable and handsome chap who, we find, is a committed Christian and a somewhat closeted homosexual.

An excellent script and performances that are are spot-on from beginning to end. I am enjoying the performance of the man playing Luke’s father, uptight and serious, Conservative, not conflicted, a good guy we don’t want to hurt, but can't help knowing that may be coming in this story. The program reveals the actor to be Cotter Smith, who I recognize as a ubiquitous performer in Lifetime Movies for television.I have always enjoyed Cotter Smith, although he often plays unsympathetic character. After this I shall have undying admiration for him as an actor.

Next Fall is a perfectly wonderful play. By its end I felt I had gotten to know every one of these people, some intimately. Watch the clip from the Tony Award show; it captures the gay couple and the engaging actors, Patrick Breen and Patrick Heusinger, who play them. Connie Ray portrays the mother as a perky-dynamite Southern type I know very well. There are simply no missteps in the production. I wished for Kleenex throughout the show and by the end the man next to me and I led the audience in a standing O that would still be going on if the actors had not walked off the stage. As we shambled with the group leaving the theater, I said, “Weren’t you surprised?” and he said he went because he had seen the bit on the Tony show, and he was so glad I liked it. We both felt we owned a bit of the show and were so glad there was a theater full of people who had joined us in watching. Walking to the bus terminal I followed a group of three matinee ladies who were discussing the finer points in New Jersey high volume. I was happy just hearing them. I've since learned that the show will close July 4, so my recommendation will do very little for it.

On the other hand, it did a great deal for me. It capped one of those almost-perfect days with a bouquet of insights and surprises, which to my mind is the very best thing a couple of hours in a theater can do.