Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Nostalgic Tour

Once again we are preparing to leave our boat after an abbreviated summer in the Northeast, one that was mostly hot and humid.  This is our thirteenth summer living on our boat and given that time, combined with the countless weekends during the score of summers preceding retirement we spent on board our boats, not to mention vacations during that same time we’ve probably lived almost six years on the water.  Could that be? As I type this, the water is slapping on the hull, a sound we’ve become inured to, but one I will surely miss one day.

A couple of weeks ago our friends, Harry and Susan, visited.  It was a hot day, the wind not exactly right for going out to our mooring, so instead we toured our old homes and haunts in Westport, Weston, and East Norwalk, sandwiched between lunch at our club house and then dinner in Westport (why does everything seem to be centered around food as one ages?).

Our first stop was the home on the Norwalk River where we lived before relocating to Florida.  We had renovated the old cape, adding a master suite to the top floor.  It was certainly Ann's favorite home, and mine for the view and nautical feel, but when the Nor'easters came, so did the river and on several occasions the home was surrounded by water.  As the burden of manning the pumps fell on me, I was not sorry to bid the home goodbye.  The house  has been renovated still again, the guts of it torn apart and even the top floor which we had so meticulously planned and built redone as well, but at least the house was recognizable.

Next stop was the town of Westport. When we arrived there in 1970 it was a quaint town of shops, a movie theatre, a bank, some venerable restaurants, a nice New England feel. It has morphed into an outdoor mall of Brooks Brothers, the Gap, Coach, Crate and Barrel, Talbots, etc.,  those stores replacing Klein’s, the Remarkable Bookstore, Acorn’s Pharmacy, etc. The character of the town has changed; the only remaining stores I recognized being the Westport Pizzeria, and Oscar’s Deli.  That’s it!

From there we went up North Main to Fillow Street which becomes Ford Road, passing the Saugatuck River on the left and the entrance to the Glendinning complex  an office building now occupied by Bridgewater Associates, one of the largest hedge funds in the world.

The Saugatuck River has a waterfall there and we used to swim in the pond above the waterfall, cool, clear mountain water so refreshing. Now it has been fenced off, another casual freedom lost.  Turning onto Sipperly's Hill Road, where we had first rented a small chauffeur's cottage on a nine acre estate (now parceled off with huge homes built on the property), we arrived at our first home on Rabbit Hill Road.

The house we bought in 1972 was set on two acres bordering a pine forest.  Over the last 40 years  the subsequent owners have rebuilt parts of it, adding a small second story, although the footprint has not  changed that much.  We drove up the narrow driveway, feeling a little ill at ease doing that, and sure enough someone came out of the house and got into her car and proceeded down the driveway.  We had to back out.  We rolled down the window and said we used to live there forty years ago and, remarkably, she invited us in.  She had bought the house in 1992. 

It is still a modest home, and some of what we did to the house remains, such as adding a small dining room off the tiny kitchen, but the bookshelves I built around the fireplace are gone, although the fireplace and mantel still stand.  The original detached one car garage remains, probably built when the house went up in 1925, just large enough for a model T! Outside the house the new owners cut back part of the pine forest and they now have a beautiful expansive lawn before the forest begins.  Actually, it is no longer a forest as one can see other new houses beyond.  When we lived there, Rabbit Hill itself – the subject of the Robert Lawson children’s book -- was indeed an uninhabited hill except for the few small homes clustered around the entry road.

From there, we drove up Weston Road to the home we lived in for twenty five years near Weston Center.  Ridge Road / Lane, was almost unrecognizable, many of the old homes torn down or lots sold off to build huge homes, the size of which astounds me.

We bought our Weston home in 1975, a small ranch, which we added onto, but retaining the character of the home.  Our old home is now gone and a “McMansion” has been built in its place.  Although it sits well on the property in the front, the back of this “palace” is almost on the road, its towers and turrets in one’s face and – I thought -- inappropriate for the sylvan nature of the setting.  Sad to see.

So the day was one of nostalgia, and now there is another sense of melancholy as our summer on the boat is winding down and soon we'll be flying to Copenhagen to meet a ship that will be returning to NYC via the northern Atlantic route, with multiple stops in Norway, Ireland, Scotland, and stops as well in Iceland and Greenland.  Ann has organized tours at each port and I hope to post some interesting photographs and a narrative of our trip sometime in October.

I’m loading up a few novels to read, but meanwhile I’m trying to finish Blake Bailey’s massive biography of Richard Yates, A Tragic Honesty, probably the best literary biography I’ve read since Carol Sklenicka's biography, Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life  It is a breathtakingly detailed biography of a much under-appreciated artist, Richard Yates.

Until reading Bailey’s account, I was never fully aware of the extremely biographical nature of Yates’ fiction. His characters are from his life experiences.  And I never fully realized the extent of his asceticism, an anti-materialism that manifested itself in the most austere living conditions, almost a stereotype of the dark, brooding artist.  (One of his apartments was a seven story walk-up on 26th Street, off of 5th Avenue in NYC.  Bailey describes it as “a long studio with a few random sticks of furniture – an orange sofa bed where he slept, a wobbly table in the narrow sit-down kitchen, two or three chairs and a desk by the plaid-curtained window; also he installed a bookshelf where he mostly kept the work of friends and students, as well as a handful of novels he couldn’t do without.”)  Cockroaches frequently were his companions in these run-down apartments.

His self-destructive alcoholism (which naturally he denied), his militant, compulsive smoking (4 packs a day, even after he was diagnosed with TB), and his need to be with a woman who would support him emotionally, is in many ways reminiscent of Raymond Carver’s life, a writer who he apparently met only once.

Yates worshiped the works of Flaubert, Hemingway and then Fitzgerald, always feeling inferior to the latter or any writer who was Ivy-League schooled.   Although Yates taught fiction at the graduate level, he never went to college himself.  Nonetheless, Yates felt he had a lot in common with both Hemingway and Fitzgerald and even tried to emulate the latter in his dress from Brooks Brothers, not to mention living in Paris during his formative years.

Between his bouts with mental illness and compulsive drinking, his marriages, affairs, children, and peripatetic teaching positions, it is a wonder that he wrote such classics as Revolutionary Road and Easter Parade, two of my favorite novels, as well as other novels and short story collections.  He was the writer’s writer, respected by all but loathed for his lifestyle.

I was saddened to see that Bailey quotes what someone said about the edition of Revolutionary Road I had republished, lamenting that it “languishes in a grim (and expensive) hardcover edition published by a reprint house (Greenwood Press).”   This particular edition was reprinted for college libraries and had to be manufactured to the “grim” standards acceptable for library use.  It was not a consumer edition but at least the classic was kept in print.

Perhaps I’ll write more about this superb biography sometime in the future.  I first have to finish it!

In the meantime, we bid adieu to our boat and friends and family in the Northeast as when we return from our cruise we'll begin our drive back to Florida.  Until then……

Saturday, September 1, 2012

“Harbor” Lights up Westport Country Playhouse

Mark Lamos, Westport Country Playhouse’s Artistic Director has done it once again.  A couple of years ago he bravely produced and directed Samuel Beckett’s HappyDays, a daring choice I thought to celebrate the Theatre’s 80th anniversary. 

And now he has chosen to produce and direct a new play by a new playwright, Chad Beguelin, always a risky endeavor for a theater.  Our beloved Florida Stage took that route,and it paid the price during the recession, having to close its doors after so many years Unlike the Westport Country Playhouse, the Florida Stage made the production of new works its specialty, rendering it even more vulnerable.  Excellent new plays are hard to find and harder to produce.

So, kudos to Mark Lamos in choosing Chad Beguelin’s first play (although he has been successful as a musical bookwriter and lyricist).  Lamos put the play and playwright through a workshop process to improve the script and what has emerged, as directed by Lamos, is a play which is Neil Simonesque in its dialogue, pacing, and mix of pathos and humor.

Although a harbor is “a sheltered part of a body of water deep enough to provide anchorage for ships,” it is also “a place of shelter; a refuge,’ the kind of place when one thinks of “family.”  But the definition of family is drastically changing, as has the area in which the play takes place, modern day Sag Harbor, once a whaling town and now one of the hot spots of the Hamptons.  Coincidentally, it is also where my own dysfunctional family vacationed during the summer months when I was a kid and years later, where Ann and Iwould often take our boat for a nostalgic weekend, thus occupying a special place in my memory.

Neil Simon was once asked what he would advise new playwrights about writing comedy, and he said they should “not to try to make it funny. Tell them to try and make it real and then the comedy will come.” This is precisely what Chad Beguelin has done in Harbor, a modern day tale of a gay couple, together ten years, and living in Sag Harbor. Ted, is the successful architect, and his partner is Kevin, the perpetually aspiring writer (the same novel ten years in the making), whom Ted supports and enables. 

In the great tradition of American comic-drama, the dysfunctional family is at heart of this play. Kevin is from an alcoholic family of “poor white trash,” the first from his family to go to college.  A catalyst is needed for the play.  Guess who is coming to visit? Kevin’s sister, Donna, who he hasn’t seen since their mother’s death, and dragging her very reluctant 15 year old daughter, Lottie, with her.  They live in a VW Camper, Donna being a knock off of the family from which she emerged while the precociously mature Lottie, through literature, is making every attempt to save herself from a similar fate.

Kevin and Ted of course do not know of the visit until Donna calls from a gas station some three blocks away.  Kevin, stunned, tries to derail the visit, knowing that something dreadful is about to happen, but there would be no play without this visit!  And from there, the action really begins.

Sister Donna has an ulterior motive for the visit, and if I begin to go into detail at this point, this commentary on the play will become a spoiler, so I will simply say that plays about gays has moved into the next phase – they have their own biological clocks ticking, pressures to become parents either through adoption or surrogate birthing.  

Kevin has strong ‘mothering’ instincts but Ted is set in his ways, envisioning a life of travel and freedom after work, certainly not parenting, although, ironically, he is in a sense Kevin’s caretaker, and those feelings begin to transfer to Lottie who also needs protecting.  In fact, all the characters in the play need saving and the ebb and flow of their interaction makes for engaging and at times hilarious theater-going.

I can’t say enough about the actors, all at the top of their form, delivering some very funny dialogue and facial expressions where timing is everything.  Donna is played by Kate Nowlin who delivers caustic wisecracks that has the audience laughing.  Any time she’s on the stage, she is a presence.  Special accolades to Alexis Molnar, a high school senior, who plays Lottie with such poise you would think she’s been around theatre since she was born.

Both Bobby Steggert who plays Kevin and Paul Anthony Stewart as Ted were flawless in their role as a gay couple trying to adapt to the intrusion of these two women into their lives and the truth they are forced to face about their own relationship.

I think of this play as a beginning of a new phase in American theatre, finding its roots perhaps in the works of Neil Simon, or A.J. Gurney (who, coincidentally was in the audience last night and whose works we have enjoyed over the years) but blazing new trails to reflect the changing mores of the times.  We love the revivals of the tried and true classics we see at our favorite West Palm Beach theatre, Dramaworks, and hope this play will not only make it there one day but for sure to other enlightened regional theatres throughout the country.  Congratulations to the Westport Country Playhouse for having the foresight to stage a ‘world premiere comedy’ and to Mark Lamos for his encouragement and expert direction.  And may we enjoy other new plays by Mr. Beguelin who has the right stuff as a playwright.