Tuesday, February 25, 2014


A very poignant piece and lovely poem / lyrics by the late John Denver.  I know exactly what Josh Brown and Denver mean.  Ah, the stories to be told, but now, they've been mostly told to me as I could practically reverse the digits of Brown's age in stating mine.  But 37 is a great age, a time to feel fabulously alive; then I was running a publishing company, feeling pretty much like Josh, waking up excited by the forthcoming day, and the week if it was my favorite day, Monday.  But just wait, Josh, if you think time is accelerating at 37, well, you know what I'm about to say, so, instead here's some advice from a septuagenarian: enjoy every day -- you'll never get one of them back!  Finally, although someone else might be looking back at me in the mirror, my mind says he's a stranger; I'm still eagerly looking forward to the coming day.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Other Desert Cities, A Classic American Drama at the Maltz

As we drove up to the Maltz Jupiter Theatre Friday night there was a storm north, probably over Jensen Beach, and the night sky was crackling with constant cloud to cloud lightning in the distance.  We seemed to be headed into its vortex which, in a way, I would describe the essence of Jon Robin Baitz' play, Other Desert Cities.

It was a pleasant surprise to see such a stimulating play at the Maltz Theatre, not that they haven't had such plays in the past, but we wish they would do more, this one in particular having the "look and feel" of the serious Palm Beach Dramaworks productions, including two actors who frequent the latter stage, the always dependable Cliff Burgess and the fabulous Angie Radosh.  Add the other very competent actors, the set and staging, and the result is an evening of fine theatre 

I'd almost call the play "Arthur Miller Lite" as it has many of the tragic elements of some of his plays -- families in weighty conflict -- but with comic elements as well, a tragicomedy of sorts.  It is a Christmas get-together, which is supposed to be a wonderful time of the year, right?  Yeah, "right" -- a perfect time for discord, especially when you put a dysfunctional family under the microscope.

Here we watch the Wyeth family in their home in the desert city of Palm Springs "welcoming" back one of their own who has strayed from the flock, Brooke, the daughter of  Lyman Wyeth and his wife Polly.  She has been away for six years. During that time she wrote and published a novel, but then was in and out of mental hospitals. Since her "recovery" and in the aftermath of a dissolving marriage, she has written a memoir that is about to be published, one that paints her parents in a very unforgivable and unfavorable light. They who live in a power-broker world, a well connected family, former friends of Nancy and Ronald Reagan, extremely wealthy and very conservative, set in their ways, and never expecting their only daughter to publicly expose family wounds.   

Brooke's arrival and her project are the catalysts to begin the pot stirring on stage, and joining her parents (who were involved in television, she as a writer and he as an actor) are her brother Trip who produces reality television shows and Brooke's Aunt Silda, Polly's alcoholic sister, who is staying with the Wyeths now that she is out of rehab. Silda used to collaborate with Polly writing for TV as well.

So we have a bunch of writers getting together.  What could be more fun with the potential for sharp, cutting dialogue than that? And in spite of Brooke's hope that the family will approve of her memoir -- her real purpose for visiting -- what hope is there for that as she blames them for one of the family secrets, her brother Henry's suicide?  Henry had spent his teenage years rebelling against the family values, joining an anti-Vietnam war underground movement which culminated in the bombing (and a death) at an army recruiting center. Presumably, he jumped off a Seattle ferry, leaving suicide notes and for that Brooke intensely blames her parents. But there is much that Brooke does not know. This family, in fact, is shrouded in secrets.

As the play wears on, these other secrets are peeled away leaving the exposed, corrupted core of the family.  Add to that the divergent political views, opposite polarities of the daughter and mother, and the action taking place during the time of the Iraq War -- the microcosm of the family war in "one desert city" against the macrocosm of carnage in "another desert city" -- and you have a play with lots of moving parts and things to think about.

It's also a play about writing. How much can a writer can step over the line of fiction into non-fiction, writing about characters who are close family? It reminds me a little of when Thomas Wolfe published Look Homeward Angel, a thinly disguisednovel of his family and town folk in Asheville, NC, which enraged the town folk and left him an outsider.  It is one of my own constraints when writing, especially when I attempt any fiction as I always seem to circle back to childhood memories that are not too dissimilar from those Jon Robin Baitz writes about.  At a certain point should I abandon self-censorship?  Believe me, these were thoughts that went through my mind watching this play.  And I think Baitz is as concerned about the issue of writing truths from one's experience fully conscious of the pain that might elicit.

So I take this play very personally and therefore why shouldn't I think it exceptional, especially as you often hear the question: where are the great new playwrights?  My one regret is not having read this play first, as I think it is one of those plays which may be as good (or better?) in the reading. Ann (my wife) on the other hand, was not as impressed, especially after the first act with which she had difficulty connecting emotionally, and Ann has a very accurate emotional barometer.  I sort of felt the same way at intermission, although on an intellectual level I profoundly connected -- so many elements of my childhood were stirred up.  I'm not sure this disconnected emotional feel was the play itself, the acting, or the direction.

But before making some comments on those elements, I must say a few words about the set, the first one designed at the Maltz by Anne Mundell, a highly accomplished set designer and teacher of Scenic Design at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama.  If verisimilitude is the objective of a set, this one is over the top.  It IS a desert home and one feels as if real people live there.  It is also somewhat monochromatic, like the desert, with people living out their secrets there. Outstanding. And Cory Pattak took full advantage of lighting the extraordinary stage and capturing changing emotional moments.

The mother (Polly played by Susan Cella) and her daughter (Brooke played by Andrea Conte) perhaps have the most difficult roles in the play.  Polly comes from Jewish roots, now transformed into a waspy, right wing wife of a former Ambassador, after a stint in Hollywood, a woman who now revels in her wealth and connections.  Painfully she is also now saddled by an emotionally distraught daughter with whom she is so congenitally at odds. She has to deliver some of the more caustic lines in the play such as:  "You can die from too much sensitivity.  So much pressure to be fair.  I hate being fair."  Or when asked whether she is acting or not she replies "Acting is real -- the two are hardly mutually exclusive in this family." She plays Polly professionally but uninspiredly.  Perhaps it is the role itself, a complex one of the controlling mother when juxtaposed to the other complicated roles on stage.

Andrea Conte's Brooke begins her role as an anxious, depressed,  physically agitated young woman and then elevates it to an angry depressed person, with a certain shrillness about her portrait that was at times jarring, frightening.  I don't know how she could have played the role any differently -- it was her yoke as written by Baitz  -- and she was certainly credible, transforming herself into a "different Brooke" in the play's coda, an act of resignation and acceptance.

Angie Radosh who plays Polly's sister, Silda, inhabited a similar role as Claire in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance. (In fact, I would be remiss in not noting the subtle tip of the hat by the playwright to Albee's play. When the father wants to send Brooke a check, support her in some way, Brooke protests having seen friends ruined by monetary interference from parents saying, "The balance is so delicate."). The two plays are eerily similar as are Radosh's role in each (although in Albee's play she is a drunk and here she is a rehabilitated drunk) but she is a consummate pro, having antipathy for Polly's values, leading her to prod her niece to take on the family in her memoir (secretly providing information for her).  Silda, though, has a part in the family secrets as well, and when it is revealed, the look on Radosh's face is one of horror. Another outstanding performance by Angie Radosh.

Cliff Burgess is really coming into his own as one of the more versatile actors in South Florida. We've seen him play many roles, with his portrayal of Brooke's brother, Trip, and his unique relationship in the family dynamics (he was only five when his brother's suicide occurred, so of all the characters in the play he is the most "blameless") he comes across as the voice of reason in the play, a truth speaker, to his parents and to his sister.  Not surprisingly, as he was a "privileged kid" his interests seem superficial, producing a TV show where real life people are "put on trial" and the jurors are celebrities.  The perfect cynicism, carried off by Burgess depicting the way we live today along with his constant texting, even while speaking -- the modern day multitasker.  But he's had his own secrets as well, revealed later in the play to his sister.  A bravura performance by Burgess.

Richard Kline's performance as the patriarch of the family, Lyman, is spot on.  He is a man of financial substance and conservative social connections, but truly supportive of his children (in surprising ways as well but no spoilers here), who bears the burden of the multiple layers of secrets, with a pleasantry in sync with his former profession of actor.  He is the peacemaker in the family (as was my own father), always trying to use his skills as a former Ambassador (having been appointed to the position by his old buddy, Ronald Reagan), to reconcile differences between his daughter and his wife, and to get his daughter to accept the ways of the privileged, even offering to buy the home next door so she can leave Long Island for Palm Springs (failing to see the depth of Brooke's rebellion).  Kline, who once had a regular role in the sitcom Three's Company, rises to the occasion in this serious drama.

I think this play is a director's nightmare.  The play is long -- 2 hours plus an intermission -- and there is a lot of dialogue and raw emotion, and although only five characters, it is a crowded stage, so, unavoidably, there are times when actor's backs are to some part of the audience (especially ours as we were seated far stage left).  The first act all seems to be about establishing the characters, not the explosive emotion of the second act, a fault of the play or the director?  It's hard to tell. Still, Peter Flynn, who directed the Maltz's award-winning Man of La Mancha, keeps focused on the playwright's intention, so accurately summed up by a line from the play that Flynn quotes in his playbill commentary: Everything in life is about being seen, or not seen, and eventually, everything IS seen.

Indeed, the Maltz has done a very credible job with a very good play.  Although upon exiting I heard someone say, "I wish they just did all musicals," for me, keep a fine play or two in the mix each season!

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Writing Advice from a Son

My older son's vocation is managing data for an investment firm, a job he excels at and loves. Understandably, the demands of work supersede his avocation as a writer, and he is a very good writer.  I've always tried to encourage him to write in his "spare time" which in this 24 x 7 tech world is nearly non-existent.  In his salad days he wrote a lot, mostly unpublished, although one short story was published a few years ago. 

Besides writing this blog from time to time, I play the piano.  Those are my two main creative outlets.  Recently, I had sort of an epiphany, writing a short story I didn't know was subliminally swirling around in my mind, one that was inevitably based on some of my experiences, but mostly indirect ones.  I sat down and wrote it in about four hours, having no idea I was going to write it until I started and I let the characters take me to the conclusion.  I didn't even know what characters would appear.   

With some editing it is nearly finished, as I intend to revisit it again after it sits for a while.  I first shared it with Ann and then Bruce, my best friend from college who became a high school English teacher, but who I thought would write the great American novel.  He is one hell of a writer as well!  Their helpful suggestions led me to share it with my two sons.  Jonathan made more encouraging suggestions, but Chris, the writer in our family, took my request to another level, and we got involved in a number of emails back and forth, his encouraging me to go further, much further than this nascent attempt at creative writing, my backing off more and more with each exchange. 

My "excuse" was alternative time commitments, my age, my lack of experience as a creative writer (always thinking of the shadows cast by my "Gods" of American short story writing, Cheever, Carver, Updike, and Yates).  I complained to Chris that I am merely an amateur and that I lack the skills, really, to take my writing to another plane, and I'm content with what I've done, as I'm content with the realization that my piano playing is enjoyable, but at a level I would not consider "professional"

So, below is an edited version of Chris' emails on the topic of writing, something he is encouraging me to pursue by not allowing my "self" to get in the way of my "true self."   And being a good writer is about truth, an inner truth.  Am I a "block off the old chip?" Perhaps I will try again but only when a similar "epiphanic moment" moves me, and I can safely censor self-consciousness. What he wrote what could be considered a primer on writing.

Art is not something "once and done"; not a list among the "too much to do" checklist. Relax and back up the bus and go with the flow. The only discipline required is to handle anything you do not accomplish in your writing: if you're able to control this, then you should have no problem. Not that you should expect to have any problems ---- what I'm saying is that all of your other observations, from the expectations, self-consciousness, expectations and awareness, all that fluid experience will sustain the evaporation in the eventual winding out at day's end. Awards and trophies are just the symbols of light that burns us out. 

Obviously it would be my natural domain to function in prose; the piano is an extension of yourself like the "sound of words" are an extension of my own. In fact, my old English teacher in high school compared a good piece of fiction to classical music. I never forgot that, and it makes sense when I "hear" your words on paper. I read in a different manner I believe than others because I want to feel the rhythm of language, not focus on how the notes are composed...does that make sense ?

Writing is a hearty meal, yet it takes time to prepare, and it's tough to gather the ingredients. Art is a condition of ourselves more than an extension of our selves.

I'm proud of my writing, but it's purpose was that of satisfying the condition, bringing the art to life. Once it was released, I lost control of it. My writing is unique in that it grew disproportionately to my lifestyle: my career went one way; my art the other. Obviously I'd like to heed your call, and someday I might, but, perhaps like yourself, in your words: "but to try to even think about constructing a novel would hang heavily on me, given my abilities, age, other interests, etc., etc."  Substitute my need to work, I could not even gain traction to write, It's another job unto itself.

You on the other hand, relatively speaking, could achieve much more, albeit, if you gave yourself more staying power. It's more of a journey than a commitment. Indeed, you have to feel it's useful on a more fundamental level. It's obvious by the degree of explicit and implicit self-consciousness you convey that you're not in touch with that level. I think you would even admit that this is what differentiates the big boys (Updike, etc.) from amateurs.

When I write, I seem to possess so much confidence, too, because I feel as if the language is far, far less than my feelings can possibly convey. The language of life, of love, love for each other, what we hear and see and experience couldn't even match the dry, conventional layered latency of language. We think it can, but for me, it simply does not. The fundamental level I seek is to overcome the written word; isn't this the task of any human endeavor anyway? In your piano playing, do you really follow the notes as you turn the pages? Or do you try to go further? When I play soccer, guys say I go more than 100%, that I play for a higher purpose. I was taught that very purpose long ago by my soccer coach. Our mentors, the very nature of the people you refer to in your narrative, are there to teach you a lesson...Pay it Forward. Characters should control the writer.

I really am not interested in knowing who/what your characters were based upon; that's mechanical stuff to you. If I got it wrong, then I'm fine with that. The point is that I liked how you engaged the characters in your brief story, you made their presence fluid, tangible, something which sticks and flows, like true relationships.

Your self-consciousness is actually a fear. You have nothing to prove to anyone. Your expectations are your only obstacles. It's an old saw: we are our own worst enemies. We are ultimately judged by how we stand alone, not beside the works that acquire us, or give us form. I sense a mighty world of my dad has risen like a rare whale out of the ocean, ancient, unseen, beautiful and bearing it's might from out of the deep water-blue. I hope to see the creature rise again; if not, the ocean, as always, will understand.

And, obviously, my love for writing is engaged by your experience, which generates the generous critique, too.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Cultural Miscellany

I don't comment on or review every cultural event we go to in our area, but one I should have covered was the Maltz Theatre's spectacular production of A Chorus Line, which has now closed, but had a very successful run. We saw the original 1975 Broadway production and I came away with the same feeling from the Maltz production, one mixed with pathos and joy for the performers, each with their own individual story to tell.  Maltz intelligently used Michael Bennett's innovative choreography, preserving it like a classic ship in a bottle, executed with the same degree of professionalism as in the original show.

Ever since seeing Maltz's very first production in 2004 of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by playwright Nilo Cruz, Anna in the Tropics, we've had season's tickets to the Maltz and have watched the Theatre's evolution, walking the tight rope between serious theatre / great musicals and the lighter fare aimed at entertainment-only theatre goers.  The shift towards the latter during one season almost resulted in cancelling our season's tickets, but we've been hanging on, hoping for more productions such as Chorus Line, and looking forward to their forthcoming production of the highly acclaimed Other Desert Cities (hooray, serious theatre!), and their concluding production of The King and I. Any Rodgers and Hammerstein show is worth seeing in my estimation.

No sense "reviewing" their production of A Chorus Line in more detail.  It even captured the attention of Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout, his first visit to the Maltz and undoubtedly not his last.  I agree wholeheartedly with his comments.

Ironically, the Wall Street Journal also reviewed Dramaworks' production of Harold Pinter's Old Times, Teachout attending the preview performance the night after we saw it -- the performance on which my own review was based.

Interestingly, Teachout has reviewed several Dramaworks' productions, recognizing it as one of the best theatres in South Florida, never disappointing on a professional level, but sometimes disappointing the same "entertainment-only theatre goers" the Maltz sometimes tries to please.   

Unfortunately, our local reviewer, Hap Erstein, who is a damn good writer, walks that same fine line (as does the Maltz) for his readers, praising Old Times on the one hand, but hedging his bets saying "if you need to make an emotional connection with a play’s characters to sustain interest — even for the relatively brief 75 intermissionless minutes — Old Times is probably not for you."  He even goes so far as to turn Dramaworks' mantra of “theater to think about.” to " theater to be confounded by."  To his credit though, he does acknowledge "Dramaworks is committed to exposing its audience to absurdist dramas from around the world. That is a worthy mission."

I rarely touch upon movies here.  We don't see many, cherry picking the best when they come out on DVD (why put up with cell phones, texting, long lines, people talking, the endless previews and selling in the movie theatre merely to say you saw the film immediately upon its release -- does it make the film any better?) but I can't leave this cultural odds and ends entry without mentioning what I think is a Woody Allen masterpiece, Blue Jasmine, and a bravura, Academy Award deserving performance by Cate Blanchett.  Regrettably the sturm und drang over child molestation accusations made by Dylan Farrow might overshadow what Allen (and Blanchett) have achieved in the film, a loose tale about lives of the Bernie Madoff crowd and the little people he destroyed.  In fact, the film is a classic portrayal of the "upstairs" and the "downstairs" people, so skillfully portrayed and exactingly written by Allen -- the despicable rich, the admirable working class!  Much of the success of the film is due to the casting by Juliet Taylor, who has cast all of Allen's films since the mid 1970's.

Cate Blanchett portrays a kind of fragility as "Jasmine" Francis, a Blanche DuBois character,  while her sister's boyfriend, Bobby Cannavale, reminded me of Stanley Kowalski.  The film, indeed, seems to be almost a tribute to A Streetcar Named Desire.  It was strange to see Sally Hawkins playing Ginger, Jasmine's sister, as we have seen her so often playing Anne Elliot in the BBC production of Jane Austen's  Persuasion (a DVD we dutifully watch once a year, it is that good). Hawkins is English and to hear and see her play a bag packer in a San Francisco supermarket was somewhat startling, but a real tribute to how brilliant casting makes all the difference.  Woody Allen gave full attribution to Taylor for so much of his success in a recent open letter to the Hollywood Reporter

Finally, last weekend we attended the yearly American International Fine Art Fair, an eclectic collection ranging from classic art pieces to contemporary ones capturing the comedy of modern absurdism.   

For Ann's delectation, sprinkled here and there are magnificent pieces of antique  jewelry to be admired and as for me, rare books, a potpourri of interesting cultural experiences, all on one manageable floor of the Palm Beach Convention Center.  We went with friends Harry and Susan, and I thought this a touching photograph of our wives walking hand-in-hand in City Place, on our way to the Fair from lunch.

In my fantasy life, the one where we win the lottery (and I don't mean merely a $1 million one  -- a lot more is needed to haul some of the exhibit home, including a new penthouse apartment overlooking the intracoastal and ocean -- you have to put the stash someplace appropriate), I'd snap up some of my favorites from the show.

First, as one "needs" something to view the water and the boating activities from the new penthouse; clearly an obligatory purchase would be the Kollmorgen U.S. 20 x 120 Battleship Binoculars for a mere $110,000.

It's a modern penthouse so it would be nice to have something very contemporary such as David Datuna's Eye to Eye Marilyn which will set you back $180,000

Offsetting the modern, we have to add one of Edouard-Léon Cortès' paintings, his style so unusual, the light crying out from the city of Paris in the late 19th century in Après la Pluie, St Denis, Paris for $165,000

Although no price was mentioned, an oil on linen, Sweet Dream of Vermilion Chamber by Zhao Kailin caught our eye as well, the colors perfect for our new penthouse wall.

Finally, putting some real life perspective on fantasies of penthouses, expensive art, were the Robben Island Sketches by Nelson Mandela.  Perhaps seeing his work, reading his words, and knowing what he endured and achieved was the best wakeup call from the fantasy.  His work, priceless.