Monday, October 29, 2012

Hurricane Sandy Redux

Hurricane Sandy certainly puts the tedious political circus in perspective, with the storm's tremendous threat to life and property up and down the coast.  It is sobering. I've written many times about our boating life in Norwalk, Ct, and how that area has a special place in our hearts, even though we are in Florida most of the time.  I think of what our friends are going through right now, back in our old home environs, and it is frightening and potentially catastrophic.  And our boat, Swept Away, is at risk there. Although up on the hard, it is in danger of floating away in any significant tidal surge, finally coming to rest wherever the water and wind takes her, certainly with damage, maybe total destruction.  They say that's what insurance is for, but that is not the point as it is more of a home to us and we have maintained it with a special devotion and respect a classic boat deserves.  Nonetheless the fate of our boat  is only a spec on this developing landscape of horror from Sandy.  So many lives will be disrupted or endangered and we're hoping for the best for our boating friends there, our boat club, and all impacted by this storm of the century.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Gorilla in the Room

Finally it comes out, point blank.  No mistake about it, racism in the so called post-racist USA and its possible impact on the election.

One of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign advisors, John Sununu, in an interview on CNN when asked about Colin Powell’s endorsement of President Obama for a second term, said, “Frankly, when you take a look at Colin Powell, you have to wonder whether that’s an endorsement based on issues or whether he’s got a slightly different reason for preferring President Obama.” When asked to clarify what that issue might be he said “well, I think when you have somebody of your own race that you’re proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him.”

Does that mean Sununu supports Romney, not based on the issues, but because of race?  It is not too farfetched to wonder why ”according to Reuters/Ipsos polling conducted October 1 to October 7, likely white male voters favored Romney 55.5 percent to 31.9 percent.” 

An earlier entry mentioned that I was reading the last of the “Schmidt trilogy” by Louis Begley, the current one being Schmidt Steps Back, published this year but probably written over the two prior years.  I think of Begley as being the intellectual equivalent of John Updike, who coincidently was Begley’s classmate at Harvard, both graduating summa cum laude in 1954.  From there, their careers diverged, Updike becoming a writer and Begley an international lawyer.  But Begley is now a full time writer, and to me, writes with the intellectual ease of his classmate and, like Updike, follows a character in multiple novels over years (Rabbit and Schmidt).

I intend to some more on Begley when I finish the book, but I have to quote something from Schmidt Steps Back which has a direct bearing, on “the gorilla in the room.”  One of the characters in the book,  Mike Mansour, an ultra wealthy and powerful international financier, gives voice to the issue (bear in mind, Begley does not use quotation marks for dialogue in the novel, an idiosyncratic style I’ve become accustomed to so the quotation marks here are mine):  “Then Mr. Mansour took over.  He began to orate, his voice rising as he expounded his theory, which in other versions  he revealed to Schmidt more than once, to the effect that Obama’s presidency, however much he personally wished it to succeed, was doomed. The question is, he insisted, the question is can he make American politicians do his will.  The last Democrat able to accomplish that was LBJ.  He’d grab them by the balls….—and they said, Yes Mr. President, before he’d even begun to squeeze…But Obama is black!  Black in the most racist country in the world.”   Another character reminds Mansour that Obama was just elected by a landslide.  “The question is, the great financier continued, whether it knew what it was doing. I tell you that too many of those who voted for him didn’t have a clear idea.  Now they’re saying the White House is going to be the Black House, and they didn’t sign up for that….Obama has to be such a good guy that his hands and feet are tied.  You watched him debate McCain?....You saw him smirk whenever Obama talked?  Not once, not twice, but every time.  LBJ would have said, Wipe that smirk off your face or I’ll tear your head off.  Barack can’t do that.  You can’t have a black man telling off the Man.  Please, there is no place here for angry black men! Obama has to be polite and make nice, and you know what they say about nice guys – they finish last.”

It will be a close election as the one in 2000 decided by the Supreme Court ....


Hurricane Sandy

Although we are some 250 miles from the storm, feeder bands come and go with hurricane intensity such as this one, filmed from our porch.  The water level is abnormally high almost covering the dock.  The large boat across our waterway was leaning to the starboard in the northerly wind.  Our Pursuit had been tied to our lift.  One can imagine the impact of a direct hit, winds of this magnitude for a sustained period.  Of course seven years ago we had Hurricane Wilma which, although it approached from the west, actually strengthened as it passed over our home as a Cat 2.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"So we beat on..."

No comment on the following quotes which speak for themselves, individually and collectively....

October 23, 2012
Richard Mourdock, Indiana Republican Senate candidate, in a debate segment covering abortion, "I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happened."

August 19, 2012
Rep. Todd Akin, Missouri Republican Senate candidate, in response to a question on whether a rape victim should have the option of abortion, "from what I understand from doctors, that's really rare.  If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."

June 18, 2011
Gov. Mitt Romney. Republican Presidential candidate, in a Pro Life Pledge editorial, "I support the reversal of Roe v. Wade, because it is bad law and bad medicine. Roe was a misguided ruling that was a result of a small group of activist federal judges legislating from the bench....I will only appoint judges who adhere to the Constitution and the laws as they are written, not as they want them to be written."

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Alternative Reality

It's easy to be cynical in this presidential election year, the rhetoric and posturing of the scripted, agnotological "debates," the Super PAC ads, the robo-calls, the deluge of direct mail, sending out those sound bites to "the undecided."  But what would this election cycle be like if McCain had won in 2008?  Ironically, it would have been the Democrats finger pointing about the economy because we'd probably be in a similar situation, or worse, who knows -- it's impossible to prove an alternative reality, but we can speculate.

The debt Romney carps about was first ramped up by the Treasury Department of the previous administration, not by Obama, with the enactment of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) in 2008 to stabilize the financial system and it was quite necessary at the time.  Jobs were falling off the cliff before Obama took office. Our financial system was in melt down.  And what would have been a McCain administration response as that crisis just continued to deepen?  Go into an austerity spending mode?  Cut taxes?  No, that would have been impossible.  The time for government to reign in its spending is when the economy is NOT falling off the cliff and even a Republican administration would have had to take similar action (and the Federal Reserve's Ben Bernanke was an appointee of the Republican administration as well).

Reviewing some of the more distant past, Clinton enacted tax increases in 1994, mostly on high income earners. Eventually, those, as well as a booming economy (note, no loss of jobs due to raising taxes on the upper 1%), turned around President George Bush Sr.'s deficits into surpluses. After three consecutive years of national debt reduction under Clinton, the surplus in 2000 amounted to $230 billion. 

The first fiscal year impacted by George W. Bush's tax cuts was 2002 when the surplus swung to a $159 billion deficit, a $286 billion negative change from the previous year.  True, we were now embroiled in the war on terror, but the administration persisted on raising the stakes with tax cuts.  Bush said while campaigning for a local Alabama congressman. “In order to make sure that our economy grows, in order to make sure the job base is strong, you need to have a congressman who will join me in making sure that tax relief plan we passed is permanent and doesn’t go away.”  Where were the jobs after nine years of this "temporary" but massive tax cut, mostly benefiting the upper 1%?

When Paul O'Neill, Bush's Treasury Secretary, argued against a second round of tax cuts, VP Cheney purportedly said "You know, Paul, Reagan proved that deficits don't matter. We won the mid-term elections, this is our due."   This was Cheney speaking, not some liberal Democrat. O'Neill said in an interview "It was not just about not wanting the tax cut. It was about how to use the nation's resources to improve the condition of our society. And I thought the weight of working on Social Security and fundamental tax reform was a lot more important than a tax reduction."  For that view, O'Neill was eventually fired.

Obama clearly underestimated how long it would take to reverse years of deficit spending, not only his administration's (necessary as the private sector was not spending), but his predecessor's as well. (He also didn't anticipate being stonewalled by Congress.)   But if McCain had defeated Obama in 2008, he would have inherited the same mess and today we might have Hillary Clinton running against McCain (or Palin or Romney) making some of the same arguments about fiscal responsibility being spun by Romney. 

As I said, it is hard not to be cynical about this particular election, but I respect Paul O'Neill's admonishment:  "It was not just about not wanting the tax cut. It was about how to use the nation's resources to improve the condition of our society." That is why I support President Obama and hopefully in a second term he would have Congress' cooperation to achieve some fundamental tax reform and make inroads in controlling the growth of entitlements. 

And last night, as I was preparing to post this, a bit of serendipity led me to watch the 1957 classic A Face in the Crowd on Turner Classic Movies. Directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, it depicts Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a drifter who is found in a jail by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), who she enlists to sing and talk on a local Arkansas radio station, he ultimately rising to the pinnacle of media demagoguery.  He is nicknamed "Lonesome" Rhodes by Marcia, and she goes on the journey with him from obscurity to fame to fall.  

The relevancy of this film, made more than fifty years ago, to today is striking.  Lonesome is drawn into the political arena, and is brought in to help transform the film's Senator Worthington Fuller into a Presidential candidate.  Lonesome instinctively and sardonically understands the manipulative power of language and media. 

When he first meets the Senator, he advises him to abandon his stiff personality and give himself over to Lonesome's control:  "...Your problem is getting the voters to listen to you. Getting them to like you enough to listen to you. We've got to face it, politics have entered a new stage, television. Instead of long-winded debates, the people want slogans. 'Time for a change' 'The mess in Washington' 'More bang for a buck'. Punch-lines and glamour....We've got to find  a  million buyers for the product 'Worthington Fuller'....Respect? Did you ever hear of anyone buying any product beer, hair rinse, tissue, because they respect it? You've got to be loved, man. Loved....Senator, I'm a professional. I look at the image on that screen same as at a performer on my show. And I have to'll never get over to my audience not to the millions of people who welcome me into their living rooms each week. And if I wouldn't buy him, do you realize what that means? If I wouldn't buy him, the people of this country aren't ready to buy him for that big job on Pennsylvania Avenue....I'm an influence, a wielder of opinion...a force. A force."

To Marcia he says :"This whole country's just like my flock of sheep!....Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers - everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don't know it yet, but they're all gonna be 'Fighters for Fuller'. They're mine! I own 'em! They think like I do. Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I'm gonna be the power behind the president - and you'll be the power behind me."

An actor on Rhodes' show asks him about Senator Fuller: "You really sell that stiff as a man among men?" Lonesome Rhodes replies: "Those morons out there? Shucks, I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak. Sure, I got 'em like this... You know what the public's like? A cage of Guinea Pigs. Good Night you stupid idiots. Good Night, you miserable slobs. They're a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they'll flap their flippers."

'Nuff said before next Monday's "debate" after which the "undecided" can flap their flippers.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Talley's Folly Successfully Opens Dramaworks' 2012/13 Season

Before last night's preview performance we attended Dramaworks' traditional "Knowledge and Nibbles" session, lunch followed with an opportunity to hear from the actors and the director and to have an exchange with them concerning the performance.  In attendance, too, was the set designer, Michael Amico, as in a sense, the set itself is the 3rd "character" in the play, always being referred to in the script, as a place in time, a place in family history, and a symbol of the emotional disarray of the play's two unlikely lovers.

The Victorian boat house in which the action takes place, the folly of the play's title, where Sally Talley first met Matt Friedman a year earlier, has been worn down by time, neglected, almost an outcast like the characters themselves. Here Dramaworks take full advantage of its new expansive stage, and the experienced Michael Amico, with the help of a book which had actual plans for building a boathouse in 1870, strives to capture Lanford Wilson's intent. Wilson's description states said that the boat house set should not look "bombed out" but, instead, should look "run down."  Bombed out would imply little hope, but hope gathers momentum as the play progresses.  And so as we first see it, the boat house has an almost ghoulish presence but becomes an enchanted place as the play unfolds.

It is July 4th in 1944, at Sally's home near Lebanon, Missouri (incidentally, where the playwright was born) and the play begins with an extraordinary monologue, Matt breaking the fourth wall, directly addressing the audience, in fact, in this production, even strolling in the first row before the stage, humorously and engagingly setting the time, place, and circumstances of the play.  He says the play "is a waltz - a no-holds-barred romantic story that could be done here with a couple of folding chairs, which, hopefully, will end in love, and that it will be performed without an intermission."  When Sally, the object of Matt's love, enters the dialog abruptly shifts in a 90 minute plus performance, Matt now in full character.  It is an interesting dramatic device, demanding your attention, and I thought one that endears the audience to Matt's quest.  

This is a prequel to Wilson's first play in the Talley series of three, Fifth of July, which takes place in 1977.  In this, really the first play chronologically, Wilson establishes how Sally and Matt meet only a month after D Day, the implications of the war hanging heavily.

They first had a romance a year before, in this same boat house which has been in Sally's family since her "Uncle Whistler" built it.  Everett Talley (known as the "whistler" as he always whistled; everyone in the town thinking him crazy) wanted to build a gazebo, but it became  more of a boat house. It has always been Sally's favorite place and she thinks of her Uncle as one of the healthiest family members in spite of his eccentricities.

Her family is one of the two wealthiest families in town.  They are also Protestant and along with that distinction comes some southern bigotry and Matt being a Jewish immigrant and much older, is rendered unwelcome by them. (While Sally says she’s a mid-westerner, Matt contends that "anyplace outside of New York City and some suburbs of Boston, is the south!") Her family even threatens to shoot him, calling Matt the ‘‘communist traitor infidel’’

Thus the clandestine meeting of Sally and Matt on this July night in the boat house. Even though she at first rejects Matt's advances, in fact telling him to go back to St. Louis, her very presence, and in a new dress no less, sort of belies her protestations.  (Matt, by the way, is wearing a new tie instead of the same one he has worn for years in his office.)  Matt has sent Sally letters for the past year, all unanswered (she complains that they were mostly details about his work as an accountant).

So during that night they exchange stories about their past.  In spite of being from a well-established family, Sally feels she is an outsider, carrying a secret with her which she finally reveals to Matt (no spoiler here, see the play!).  Once she unburdens herself of that, the walls of Matt's unrequited love are torn down. 

Sally questions Matt about his origins and Matt too has his tale to tell, piecing together his Eastern European / German heritage, and revealing a tragic family history of escaping persecution and the pain of his family being killed by the Nazis.

It is a beautiful play of how two emotionally wounded people, ones who feel out of step with the times and society, find a path to happiness. "You and me are so alike, although we are so different" Sally finally says. (And a political awakening has already stirred in Sally, her being fired for teaching Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class, in nursery school!)

So much of the play depends on the staging and the acting. As a "two handed" play, only two people to keep the action moving forward, it is such a delicate balance that at any time one fears their relationship might spin out of control and end badly.  And in this respect, Director J. Barry Lewis perfectly choreographs the actors on the multi-tiered stage in harmony with the overall feeling of the play as a waltz, the dialogue shifting back and forth between confrontation and tenderness in 3/4 time!  He also finds the right symmetry between the play's humorous and soulful moments.

But when it comes right down to it, the acting makes or breaks Talley's Folly and here Dramaworks' casting excels.  My wife, Ann, saw Judd Hirsch's performance as Matt in the 1980 award-winning Broadway production, but thought Brian Wallace's performance last night was every bit as credible.  Brian has to carry some heavy lifting particularly with the opening monologue, and even though this was a preview performance, the first time the actors have played the role in front of a live audience, Mr. Wallace, making his first Dramaworks appearance (although an experienced actor in NY and in repertory productions), carried the role as if he's been performing it for months.  He had the audience rooting for him right from the beginning and his ease in handling the diverse emotions of humor, anger, and disappointment, while practically pleading for Sally's hand, were moving.

Erin Joy Schmidt who plays Sally has appeared in two other productions we've seen, Goldie, Max and Milk at the Florida Stage and Dinner With Friends at Dramaworks.  She can turn an emotion on a dime, her eyes often welling up with tears while Matt is speaking and even though she might be on another part of the stage, the audience knew precisely when to follow her reaction.  How does one play the part of a spinster, one who by her own admission regarding her family "are as anxious to get rid of me as I am to leave," but finds her opportunity to be a Jewish accountant of foreign ancestry, and an older man of whom her family disapproves?  She's afraid of intimacy and commitment on the one hand and abandonment on the other, and Ms. Schmidt's performance covers the whole range.

Mr. Wallace and Ms. Schmidt are the perfect duo playing the roles of Matt and Sally, interacting with each other with ease.

A special note about the lighting, designed by Ron Burns as at one point Matt remarks that there is "no color in the moonlight."  It drew my attention to the dappled lighting as if streaking through the trees across the actor's faces, just the perfect ambiance for the play and the setting. Costume design is by Brian O’Keefe, with unerring detail right down to Sally's seamed stockings.  (Ann remarked how stunningly coifed Erin was for the part, revealing earlier in the day that it took her over an hour and half to perfect the period hairstyle!)

Perhaps some changes will be made between the preview and the opening tomorrow, but to me, the play seems ready for prime time and a fitting production for the first of Dramaworks' new season.