Saturday, July 24, 2010

I Had a Session With Freud

Thursday night we boarded a time machine which began on the ancient New Haven Railroad, the same cars I rode on decades before, still shuffling their way to Grand Central Station, laboring in the heavy July humidity and heat. The seats are worn thin with the years and most riders seem to be as well, with the exception of a sprinkling of younger people, their ears dangling with all the attendant cords from their iPods.

We were on our way to a New York premiere of a play that had been highly acclaimed when it was first performed at the Barrington Stage Company where it became the longest running play in the company’s history, Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain. Our unlikely attendance at the NY opening was prompted by our “new old friends,” Bill Hayes and his wife Sue Ellen Beryl, the Producing Artistic Director and Managing Director of Dramaworks, our favorite theatre in West Palm Beach. They will be producing the Florida premiere of the same play in December and had planned to see the NY production. It was over a recent dinner in Florida that they offered to secure tickets for us as well.

Here is the time machine portion of the story: The NY premiere was at The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side YMCA which is right next door to where we lived at 33 West 63rd Street. Since we lived there forty years ago, the West Side has dramatically changed, losing much of its original character. Our little apartment house is surprisingly still standing, dwarfed by behemoth high-rises on all sides, making it stick out like a sore thumb in its old fashioned hardiness.

As we were to meet Bill and Sue Ellen at the theatre and later, by invitation, at a gathering after the performance, we booked a table at a nearby restaurant, Gabriel’s, to have a pre theatre dinner with a long-time friend from my high school days, Ed. This provided our “once a year” opportunity to look back over the last 50 years and as we always do, laugh at ourselves, and then fill in the news from the last year. While at the restaurant, Bill, Sue Ellen and their theatre party arrived and given there are scores of good restaurants in the Lincoln Center neighborhood, one had to wonder happenstance or serendipity?

It is always exciting to see an opening, to form one’s opinion before reviews can influence it. I suppose that is why we have subscription tickets to the preview productions at Dramaworks. We were lucky enough to see Happy Days at the Westport Country Playhouse before the reviews as well.

Freud’s Last Session has all the ingredients that make for an evening of great theatre, some eighty minutes without an intermission that seemed to pass in eight minutes. The play is set in Freud’s study in London, as WW II is breaking out, only weeks before his death, and portrays a fictitious meeting between Freud and C.S. Lewis, the renowned author and Christian apologist, where they discuss their polarized positions concerning the existence of God and the nature of man. It is a weighty discussion but much of the genius of the play is in the many moments of humor. Comedy brings out the best in serious drama.

Furthermore, the staging was brilliant. The audience felt it was indeed in Freud’s study, and that WW II was just underway. Brian Prather is the scenic designer and Mark Mariani the costume designer. Martin Rayner IS Freud and Mark H. Dold a credible C.S. Lewis. Tyler Marchant’s direction paces the production perfectly.

I could go into greater detail, but I confess, I have peeked at the New York Times review which appeared as I was writing this. It covers most of the facts, although the review is inexplicably lukewarm, criticizing the play for having a “lack of tension” or lack of “suspense.” There is plenty of tension, perhaps not in the traditional dramatic sense, but certainly of a cerebral nature. It is so well written, requiring thought and careful listening as well as an appreciation of the myriad subtleties, something the Times refers to as “clever talk.” It is more than that.

I love the quiet ending, Freud left alone in his study to contemplate his discussion with his now departed guest, his own mortality, and the carnage that is about to begin, wondering how one reconciles WW II with religion, listening to the very music C.S. Lewis had admonished him for turning off after the news broadcasts. To me this was a logical resolution to the play, a sign that these opposites had indeed struck a chord in one another, even though their respective positions, Freud’s atheism, and C.S. Lewis’ theism, were left uncompromised.

It will be fascinating to see how this production migrates to the stage in West Palm Beach.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Top Kill Redeux

As much as I would prefer to write just about anything else, I seem to be helplessly drawn into the vortex of what has become part of a national Zeitgeist of failure, our (industry and government) inept attempts, first, on a macro scale – not having the proper guidelines and oversight for off shore drilling – and then the resulting disaster at hand, BP’s poisoning of the Gulf of Mexico. Three months into this catastrophe and we are now playing a dangerous game again, pondering a new “top kill” AKA “static kill” which, who knows (no confidence they do), might carry the danger of erupting the sea bed, the final straw in finishing off the Gulf of Mexico. If, on the other hand it is successful, or if at least the latest BP cap on its errant well holds without such an attempt, it proves only one thing: there are technical solutions that could have been part of a non fabricated contingency plan, one that would have cost BP (as well as other oil companies) a bunch of money to have standing by, but would have spared the Gulf of Mexico a fate that is still unknown in its gravity. The lack of oversight that accepted the BP’s original plan as the only shield for the ecosystem of the Gulf and the livelihood of its inhabitants is appalling. Future deep water drilling without a credible contingency plan, which should also include the concurrent drilling of a potential relief well, is unthinkable.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Happy Days

What a cynical title for Samuel Beckett’s brilliant play, courageously presented by the Westport Country Playhouse to celebrate its 80th anniversary. It is not the kind of light fare one might expect on a languid summer’s night at a country theatre far off Broadway, and it was a brave choice by the Theatre’s Artistic Director, Mark Lamos. But this is Westport, Ct - a bedroom community of NYC where we lived for so many years. In fact, we were there during the celebration of the Playhouse’s 40th anniversary – half of its lifetime ago -- so although we are now only summertime visitors, its byways are subliminally imprinted on us.

Edward Albee, one of the many playwrights indebted to Beckett’s trailblazing works, has said “I am not interested in living in a city where there isn’t a production by Samuel Beckett running.” So we’ve been lucky enough to live first in New York City, and then Westport and now the West Palm Beach, Fl area as well, the latter with its Dramaworks Theatre, which produces “theatre to think about.”

And indeed Happy Days is the kind of theatre that one thinks about as much in retrospect as when one experiences it. In fact, I would have been happy to have had a Samuel French edition in my lap with a tiny flashlight to follow what is mostly an uninterrupted monologue. It is so rich in meaning and innuendo. Such a performance requires an exceptional actress and the Playhouse engaged the veteran actor Dana Ivey for the task.

My wife, Ann, had a personal connection with Ivey as they were two of the lead females in their senior high school play in Atlanta, Ga. something Dana Ivey either failed to remember or would like to forget. Ann saw Dana Ivey perform on Broadway with Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy and after the performance went backstage to say hello and praise Dana for an unforgettable performance. Ann was with two friends. Morgan Freeman first greeted them, said Dana was busy, but would be with them shortly. When she came out, she completely failed to recognize or remember Ann (an unforgettable person), and only vaguely remembered the extraordinary play they performed in or anything else relating to their high school experience. It was a shocking moment for Ann who minutes later laughed it off. I guess when one becomes a Broadway star you can afford to remember the past in any way you choose.

But credit is due Dana Ivy for successfully bringing the audience into Beckett’s abstract world where days begin and end with a school bell and where we are all earth bound in an earth mound. Winnie in the first act sits waist up, at the top of her earth mound, carrying on mostly a conversation with herself, trying to read what is inscribed on her tooth brush and, finally reading the smallest print with the help of a magnifying glass, proclaiming it is another “happy day” as she has learned something new. Talking validates her existence as does the large black handbag at her side filled with her possessions. These are symbolic of our own possessions we tote around during our lifetimes, things that really own us than we them. She reminds us that these things “have a life of their own.” She arranges and rearranges the contents of her bag during the play which prophetically includes a pistol, carefully declaring a new place for the pistol which will no longer reside in her bag but by her side.

At one point, the earthbound Winnie ebulliently declares that she feels it is such a “happy day” that she should be able to ethereally rise into the sky, holding her parasol above her, one that mysteriously burns up and is tossed aside by her. Also, interestingly, except for Willie, her husband, the only other character who “makes an appearance” in the play is an ant, one that Winnie spies with her magnifying glass and carefully follows until it disappears under a rock. We are but ants in Beckett’s universe, but with the ability to talk and, unfortunately, be aware of our own brief, inexplicable existence on this mound called earth.

Meanwhile she directs questions, demands, and criticism of her husband Willy played mostly off stage by Jack Wetherall. Unlike Winnie who is at the top of the mound, Willy mostly lives in a cave and has to be reminded by Winnie, as if he is a child, that if he enters the cave head first he might have difficulty backing out. There is humor in all of this, very dark humor, which takes a darker turn in the briefer second act when the bell rings and Winnie is now buried up to her neck in her earth mound, unable to move anything at all, including her head. (In fact, Beckett in his correspondence with the play’s American director, Alan Schneider, when the play premiered at NYC’s Cherry Lane Theatre in 1961, said of Winnie: “She simply can’t move, that’s all. Times when she can’t speak, times where she can’t move. Her problem is how to eke out, each ‘day’ and organize economy of these two orders of resources, body and speech.”)

It is at this point that Willie finally makes an on stage appearance, a disheveled and shaking old man, formally dressed in spats and tie who grunts and claws his way up towards Winnie, something that pleases her at first, falling back, being egged on by Winnie to try again. Is Willie reaching for Winnie or is it the gun, as the play and their marriage and perhaps their lives devolve to their abrupt end? Lights out. Curtain.

It was a night of powerful theatre. We exited to the parking lot. It had just rained and the humidity hung in the air, also rising off the steaming macadam and fogging our glasses. So we drove the back roads of Westport, returning to our boat, passing landmarks indelibly imprinted and always remembered such as the location of the old Westport National Bank (gone) turning left onto the only road that runs west and parallel to Riverside Avenue, along the southern side of the Saugatuck River, passing homes where we had partied in our youth (including one Christmas eve where guests in an alcoholic induced stupor set a couch on fire and it had to be dragged out to the snow to extinguish the flames), the building our first Internist once occupied (who later died in the same nursing home as Ann’s mother), the Westport Women’s Club where my publishing company held our annual Xmas party for so many years, my old office itself across the river where I worked for the first ten years in Westport, now the Westport Arts Center, past the street where Ann and I went for Lamaze classes when she was pregnant, over the old bridge crossing the Saugatuck, turning left then right under the Turnpike past the structure which used to be The Arrow Restaurant (long gone) where Ann reminded me they made her favorite dinner, crispy fried chicken, and then further west to Norwalk, all fragments of our own earth mound, being earth bound, trying to understand. Theatre to think about. Oh, happy days.


Friday, July 9, 2010

Out of the Frying Pan

The last entry fondly described our summer home, a boat. One of the motivations for having this “home” is to leave Florida during the hot, hurricane prone season, and be in Connecticut where there are normally cool evenings, especially on the water. So, we drove 1,250 miles to our boat and to the worst heat wave in almost ten years, reaching 100 F during the peak of the afternoon. Florida was 15 degrees cooler!

I remember several years ago when we were at our mooring overnight, astonished to watch the lights slowly dim and disappear on the shore, the last widespread blackout in the Northeast. Anticipating a repeat in this heat wave, I began to prep the boat for departure to our mooring if there was a similar loss of power.

First thing was to check our fresh water pump to access the 100 gallons of water we carry. Air was trapped in the system and the pump would not self prime, so that will need rebuilding or replacement. As a work around I cleaned out an ice container to hold fresh water for an overnight.

The generator, which is needed for systems on the boat, started up but slowly died as it overheated – probably the impeller needs replacement. Consequently the prospect of leaving the dock for an overnight faded as well. We got through the worst of the afternoon with no power problems, but as the sun set so did the power on the dock. There were lights on across the river, but not on our side. We heard everything would be back on in about four hours. OK, we can run our refrigeration off our batteries, and luckily, we had just cooked dinner so we had something to eat and we hunkered down. But in four hours we heard it would be at least several more. For the first time since our early boating years, when we were much younger and adventuresome, we tried to sleep in the 90 degree heat, the windows open, inviting a breeze that failed to visit. It was not only a hot night, it was silently still. One tiny DC fan circulated the stale air and until 4.00 am we revisited our boating past. I will have to reread my last entry to remind myself why we still do this!

Meanwhile, on more important matters, the AP just reported New cap, ships could contain Gulf leak by Monday. If this is feasible, it might be the first good news on this disaster, although I fear the damage to the Gulf will linger for generations. Lessons to be learned? Perhaps the same ones from the financial crisis: regulations are necessary as well oversight. And, the final lesson: drilling our way to energy independence is a myth. For decades we have talked about making the development of alternative energy sources a priority. The time is now.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Home Sweet (Summer) Home

On our 13th anniversary Ann gave me a book, How to Live Aboard a Boat inscribing it, “Here’s to a ‘dream-come-true’ one day! Happy Anniversary!” Little did we know that one day we would, well sort of -- at least for the summers. And we’ve been doing it, now, for more than ten years. There is a long history that led to this, involving more adventurous cruising, but as our interest in traveling greater distances by boat seemed to diminish with age, we have settled on the port where it all began, Norwalk, CT, and our favorite destination, one of the small Norwalk Islands.

Having had several boats, some larger and pricier, we ultimately scaled down to a classic 38’ Chris Craft Convertible. In 1984 Chris Craft had bought a well-known Pacific coast boat builder, Uniflite. During the Vietnam years Uniflite built river patrol boats for the Navy. In the pleasure boat market they were known for building heavy, rugged cruising boats. Chris Craft continued the Uniflite line under the CC brand name until 1989. By then the boating industry was being badly hurt by the beginning of a recession. This also coincided with a decline in market share for Chris Craft. Consequently, CC phased out the Uniflite hull, and closed the factory in Bellingham, WA where our boat was made.

Although we are not the original owners of the boat, we’ve known her since she was first launched in 1987. The original owner was a friend with whom we used to cruise, and our boats had run side by side many times to such ports as Nantucket and Block Island. So the ‘Swept Away’ as she is now named, had been part of our boating consciousness and it seemed like fate when she came on the market at about the time we had decided to downsize.

As is often said, “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” Today’s powerboats are lighter, faster, mostly “Euro-styled” which makes them look like (to me) a gaudy sneaker. I am a traditionalist, and would choose the quality of the fiberglass, construction, and style of this boat to most new ones off the production line of comparable size (not to mention the astonishing monetary differences between those new boats and our old classic). The interior walls and doors of the Swept Away are teak with other touches of traditional boating from another era. Her 13' 11" beam, 28,000# displacement makes for seaworthiness while her salon, fully equipped galley, dinette (which doubles as my desk), head and shower, and separate stateroom make it our little condo on the water. It has a huge cockpit for a boat this size, the perfect “back porch” for reading on languid summer afternoons. Thanks to the help of friends such as John and Ray, and our son Jonathan, not to mention the services of the “Soundkeeper,” we continue to be able to take pleasure in this unique lifestyle.

So, it is time to go back to our summer home, do some local cruising, and to see old friends.