Saturday, August 30, 2014


Our “vacation” on our boat in Connecticut wrapped up in a frenzy, meeting friends for dinner, saying our goodbyes, and spending our last night with Jonathan and Anna, first dinner at Westport’s lovely Blue Lemon, and then a night of splendid theatre at the Westport Country Playhouse.  We’ve been going to the WCP for some forty years and the one constant is the quality of their productions.  No wonder the Wall Street Journal named it one of the four leading regional theatres in the United States, along with our other favorite here in Florida, Dramaworks.  You could say we have the best of both worlds, having seasonal access to each.

The current production at WCP is Alan Ayckbourn’s Things We Do for Love, a typical Ayckbourn play exploring relationships with a comedic touch. Perhaps not as well known as his Absurd Person Singular, The Norman Conquests trilogy or Bedroom Farce, all of which we’ve seen over the years, either in London, Westport, or NY,  this play has that distinctive Ayckbourn signature, and as a later play, perhaps a bit more maturity.

The set itself (and the photograph fails to do it justice) is actually on three levels, the living room being the main one, in the home owned by Barbara, a professional woman, dedicated to her job as an executive assistant. The basement flat below is rented to a postman, Gilbert, who also serves as handyman plus having a crush on Barbara (of which she is unaware).  Barbara is 30-40 something, and being visited by her high school friend, Nikki, who is in love and in fact engaged to a Scotsman, Hamish.  Barbara has agreed to sublet the upper flat to them while their house is being renovated, and this level, too, can be seen by the audience.  Barbara and Hamish take an instant dislike to one another. Need I say more?  So the play takes place on multiple levels -- physically and metaphysically -- with interesting and entertaining twists. In the course of the evening, we learn much about the “things we do for love.”

Part of the success of the Westport Country Playhouse’s production is its fine casting; I think a hallmark of both WCP and Dramaworks.  I could single out Michael Mastro who plays Gilbert for special recognition, a difficult role to play.  But all – Geneva Carr as Barbara, Matthew Greer as Hamish, and Sarah Manton as Nikki – are first rate, and make this a memorable production, under the fine direction of John Tillinger.  And kudos to James Noone for his scenic design.

Ayckbourn once said “The joy of the English language is its infinite capacity for being misunderstood.”  Indeed, and how lucky we are to have a playwright of his stature still in our midst.  While viewing his plays, one has the impression one is experiencing a light farce, but his plays linger in one’s mind, a testament to the more substantive themes he weaves with his unique comedic touch.

By the way, I wrote this before a review appeared in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.  Terry Teachout essentially agrees with me!

The following morning we were on the road returning to Florida.  At the last minute we decided to take a detour to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.  We had never seen this UNESCO World Heritage Site and it had been on our so-called bucket list.  We heard that they now conduct smaller tours of the home which, for the first time, includes the upstairs and the dome and decided that was for us. 

It was fascinating to see Jefferson’s use of octagonal forms in his designs such as the dome room and many of the bedrooms.  Unlike most of the home where photography was forbidden, we were able to photograph this part.  His use of a skylight was radical for the time.

We are glad we booked this “Behind the Scenes” tour, arriving early in the morning before the crowds, being able to more leisurely appreciate the genius of the man, a self trained architect as well as author of the Declaration of Independence.  Did he know no earthly bounds?  Surveying his land and buildings, one can say that indeed necessity was the mother of invention.  Jefferson knew how to produce what he needed from the land to transform his entire estate, using his imagination and stunning ingenuity. 
I suppose the only blemish on his reputation was his adherence to slavery, something he knew was wrong, but as it was such an ingrained part of the American south at the time, he felt powerless to change it.  Let another generation do it, he thought.  When one thinks that as recently as the 1960s we had segregated facilities in many parts of the US, one can appreciate the enormity of the conundrum.

Besides the grounds and his home (of course the focal point of the visit) we were impressed by The Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s wisdom in setting up the visitor’s center a short shuttle ride from the plantation, with a 20 minute introductory film, museum, a well stocked restaurant, and a beautiful shop.  From there it is but a 5 minute shuttle ride to an experience of a lifetime.  The small carefully timed tours were especially appreciated.
It reminded us of visiting The Biltmore in Asheville, and the neighboring Carl Sandburg home in Flatrock, NC.  The Jefferson plantation had the intimacy and livability of the Sandburg home and grounds, and, as a self sustaining home, a little of The Biltmore, but not the grandeur.  However, if one considers accomplishments of the intellect an element of grandeur, Monticello soars

Since we started out early for our tour of Monticello, and we were now continuing on our way to FL, we thought we’d push on setting a target for Florence, SC for the night.  We understood our friends, Harry and Susan, were on their way north and that’s where they normally stay for the night, so wouldn’t it be fun if we met there for dinner?  We knew where they were staying, so we called while on the road and booked a room there. We were driving some 475 miles from the northwest and they some 575 miles from the south.  We both arrived within a minute of each other!  If one had planned to meet that would have been impossible timing.  It makes one believe in serendipity.

It was fun to catch up with each other after being away for nearly two months.  The next morning we left the hotel at 5.30 am.  Great to get some miles under our belt at that time while I95 is nearly empty, except for the trucks of course.  By 3.00 PM we were home, sadly leaving our other life behind at the South Norwalk Boat Club in Connecticut.

But wait ‘till next year!

Friday, August 15, 2014


It was a night to remember on the boat.  Islip, NY, only some 25 miles away as the crow flies, had more rain than they have in an entire summer, 13 inches, in the early morning hours of Wednesday night.  Here we had only about two inches, but the wind was unrelenting out of the east and southeast, the most vulnerable direction in the Norwalk Harbor.  Plus it was an astronomical high tide.  Our boat is half way out into the Norwalk River so at about 1.30 AM around high tide, with the wind roaring and the rain horizontal, our boat began to pitch and roll.  Anticipating this weather, I had tied redundant spring and bow lines but within a short time, those stretched and we found ourselves occasionally banging into the piling on our port side.  Go out and put more lines on or tighten the existing ones a part of me said – no way; nothing would help, said the other.  Try to sleep I told myself, although it felt as if we were underway.

Sleeplessness was aided by anticipation.  The weather forecast for most of Wednesday was for more wind and rain, here and in NYC, the day we were going in for lunch and the theatre, something we had planned for months. By the time we could get off the boat and dock, and onto the train, we’d be like a couple of drowned rats, not to mention the difficulty of getting to the theatre, walking from Grand Central Station to the New York City Center between 6th and 7th on 55th Street.  We’re veteran New Yorkers and know how to book it to time the lights, but rain and wind would make that impossible, not to mention getting a cab.

Months ago, as soon as I heard it would be appearing as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, I had booked tickets – 3rd row orchestra, practically center, to see the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Jean Genet’s The Maids starring Cate Blanchett.  We’ve long admired this hugely talented actress, who has not only appeared in scores of films, but has been supportive of live theatre, particularly the Sydney Theatre Company which she and her husband helped to make known internationally after taking over the reins from Robyn Nevin. An added bonus in this production included two other highly acclaimed movie and stage actors, Isabelle Huppert and Elizabeth Debicki.  Having never seen Genet’s masterpiece, and always being a “fan” of the Theatre of the Absurd, and given the cast, how could we go wrong seeing this production?

Well, the weather and forecast Tuesday night / early Wednesday morning almost made us regret the obligation to go into the city, arriving soaked (if we arrived at all, given the reports of flooding). But miraculously, the skies cleared as we got off the train at Grand Central Station and we had a leisurely walk to a restaurant, Milos, near the theatre.  As it was recommended by our son, Jonathan, we met him there for lunch.

It is “restaurant week” in New York City so we were able to order a lovely and delicious Mediterranean meal at “reasonable” prices, compared to the typical astronomical ones. NYC restaurants of that distinction are frequented by executives seeking a power lunch and by “ladies who lunch” (as Sondheim put it). 

As we entered the theatre we learned that our tickets were being scalped for $700 apiece, ironic I thought, people going to see a play by Genet who clearly despised the class of people who could afford to see his play.  I suppose the movie star cast, and the very limited engagement led to those prices – supply and demand!

The stage set looked placid enough, but within only minutes into the play we knew that it would be our second maelstrom in 24 hours.  Crude gutter language, bodily fluids (spit and drool galore), and raw sexuality with the help of readily available props on stage unfolded. Voyeuristic views of what went on in the off stage bathroom shot live with hand held cameras and projected on a huge screen on stage, and close ups, sometimes of flowers (there were hundreds of them in vases all over the stage), but frequently of the actresses faces slapping on powder and lipstick at the “mistress’” make up table, or close ups of humping or physical abuse on the bed or floor, accosted us for almost the next two hours, with no intermission.  And then there is the “plot” – really the imaginary murder of the “mistress” by the two maids, one pretending to be the mistress (Cate Blanchett) and the other the maid (Isabelle Huppert), fantasizing the murder, in anticipation of the arrival of the “mistress.”  Genet’s play was loosely based on a real life incident, but of course he extrapolates it to its most outrageous and sordid extreme.

This production puts a 21st century spin on Genet’s work, not only with the innovative use of viewing the characters using two video cameras and projecting those emotions close up, but casting a much younger woman, Elizabeth Debicki, as the “mistress.”  She not only has the class advantage over her imprisoned Maids, but she has youth and indeed, she struts it – all six feet three inches of her gorgeous young body. And when she finally arrives about half way through the play, one can appreciate Blanchett’s impersonation even more.

Above all, there is an energy level that is poured into this production which is incomparable to anything we’ve seen on stage – all three of them playing their roles on the borders of frenetic madness.  How, we thought, would it be possible for these same actors to do an evening performance? After all, we, the audience, left exhausted, and can only imagine what they would have to do to recover.

Afterwards I wondered to myself why any actor – especially well-established screen actors – would take the risks of these roles on stage, in front of a live audience.  Film acting must be so, so, much easier.  But I think it says something about these particular actors, accepting a gauntlet thrown, the challenge to excel overwhelming the perceived risk.  They are just that good.

The philosophical merits of what Genet has to say are clear from 50,000 feet, but I’d have to read the play to have a better, detailed understanding.  My one criticism concerns the maid Solange played by Isabelle Huppert, a French actress of renown, and perhaps selected for the role as homage to the French playwright, Genet, but her strong French accent sometimes caused many missed words.  We all were desperately trying to make sense of her complete dialog, so important, I think, in understanding Genet – and particularly the impassioned monologue at the end of the play. 

That comment, however, is not to detract from the overall production, something we’ve never experienced in the theatre, and with a standing ovation at the end, we cried Brava! Brava! many times over during their multiple curtain calls. 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Few Summer Photographs

I was going to simply combine this with my last entry but I suppose it should stand on its own as it is not directly related.  In addition to reading some wonderful literature such as the Gilbert’s Ampersand, there are some special moments living on our boat, and I’ve tried to capture a few of them in these photos.

One of the Norwalk Islands you pass while leaving the west side of the harbor is Tavern Island. This has a rich history, including stories of wild parties held by Billie Rose and it is where Lillian Hellman finished her “Little Foxes.”  It can now be yours for merely $10 plus million.

Sheffield Island Light House is a great place to visit. A ferry runs regularly from the Norwalk Seaport Association on Water Street.  Ask whether Capt. Al is running it and say hello! Price of the ferry includes a tour of the lighthouse built around the time of the Civil War.

We used to live on the Norwalk River, in this house, although the present version has been renovated and the second floor enlarged.  Norwalk River is a “working river” with barges and fishing and oyster boats regularly departing and arriving, always something interesting going on. This house has a view from the eastern banks while our boat is now docked on the western shore.

How many photographs were taken around the world of the recent Supermoon?  Probably billions.  Here are a couple more, not spectacular but personal, looking east across the Norwalk River from the end of our dock

And of course, an obligatory “underway” photograph, leaving Norwalk Harbor in our boat.

The weather this year seems to be the inverse of last year’s stifling heat wave.  We wondered why we bothered to leave Florida last year, but this summer’s weather in the Northeast has made up for the last, with temperatures mostly in the 80’s and relatively low humidity.  Just beautiful, and as testimony I offer a shot of clouds at sunset over the marina, taken from our bridge.

And Sons -- an Ambitious Noteworthy Novel

My blogging friend, Emily (a former employee and a great editor), knows my taste in literature, knows I hail from NYC and that I have two sons, so as we left Florida she sent me a summer read, a present for “Father’s Day.”   We have often joked that she is my ersatz daughter and we regularly stay in touch. Sadly, and only very recently, Emily’s own father passed away.  She was very close to him and I send Emily my deepest condolences.

The book she kindly sent, & Sons, is by another talented “youngish” American writer, David Gilbert.  It is encouraging to see a wave of emerging American writers.  I think of such authors I have mentioned in this blog, Jonathan Franzan, Jonathan Tropper, Brady Udall, Eric Puchner, Jonathan Lethem, Chad Harbach, Dave King, and Jess Walker, and perhaps I’m leaving a few out.  Who will replace our Updikes and Cheevers, and now Roth who (if I might borrow a baseball metaphor) has hung ‘em up as has Mariano Rivera and now Derek Jeter is about to do?  Then there are the well established (no longer “youngish”) writers such as John Irving, Richard Ford, Louis Begley, Richard Russo, and Anne Tyler (probably left many others out of that list as well).  I’ll read anything they write, but we need to support our emerging American authors as well.

So I was happy to read a David Gilbert novel, an author of consequence.  Gilbert’s &Sons is Dickenesque in its plot and subplots, Irvingesque in the characters eccentricities, and thematically one can sense the shadow of his contemporary, Jonathan Franzen dealing with family issues. I could also throw in a little Tom Wolfe and the influence of the great Canadian  short story writer, Alice Munro. This doesn’t mean Gilbert isn’t original, but all writers have their progenitors.  The writing is a hat tip to Salinger as well. The novel within this novel, Ampersand, was written by our protagonist, the reclusive writer A.N.Dyer.  Ampersand’s mystique is similar to The Catcher in the Rye.

Rather than attempting to recapitulate the story, I turn to the Booklist --  a “starred review” as pointed out on the Amazon site.  When I worked as a publisher, I never missed an issue of Booklist, the reviewing “bible” of the American Library Association: 

From Booklist…
Acutely aware that his time is short after the death of his lifelong friend, Charles Topping, Andrew Dyer, a revered, famously reclusive New York writer, is anxious for his youngest son, 17-year-old Andy, whose birth destroyed Andrew’s marriage, to connect with his two half brothers. Their chaotic reunion becomes the catalyst for Gilbert’s (The Normals, 2004) intricately configured, shrewdly funny, and acidly critical novel. Richard, a junkie turned drug-addiction counselor and screenwriter, lives in Los Angeles with his fine family. Based in Brooklyn, Jamie circles the globe, videotaping atrocities. Heirs to a classic WASP heritage compounded by Andrew’s cultish, Salingeresque renown, the edgy Dyer men are prevaricators and schemers whose hectic, hilarious, and wrenching misadventures involve a fake manuscript, a Hollywood superstar, and a shattering video meant to be a private homage but which, instead, goes viral. Then there’s Andrew’s preposterous claim about sweet Andy’s conception. Gilbert slyly plants unnerving scenes from Andrew’s revered boarding-school-set, coming-of-age novel, Ampersand, throughout, while Topping’s resentful, derailed son, Philip, narrates with vengeful intent. A marvel of uproarious and devastating missteps and reversals charged with lightning dialogue, Gilbert’s delectably mordant and incisive tragicomedy of fathers, sons, and brothers, privilege and betrayal, celebrity and obscurity, ingeniously and judiciously maps the interface between truth and fiction, life and art. --Donna Seaman

It’s a good summary but for me the novel was sometimes emotionally lacking, just the opposite of Zach Braff’s recent movie (and script), Wish I Was Here, which is also about idiosyncratic sons and their father where I experienced more of an emotional connection to the main characters. (Unfair, I know, to compare a movie to a novel.) Gilbert somewhat misses the boat on that one, but catches a love sonnet to NYC, its Central Park, and some of the “in” places -- many of which didn’t exist during my salad days in the City or I was just not “in that crowd.”

I found the first third of the novel slow to get going, but once it does, it becomes a fast, compulsive read.  Gilbert leans on a slightly science fiction like detail (if you believe A.D. Dyer’s tale to his family) to turn the corner in the novel.

These criticisms are not to diminish the quality of Gilbert’s writing, which puts him in the running for one of the finer upcoming American authors.  It is a complicated novel, but constructed with care and some of the writing is, well, breathtaking.  As usual, I take the liberty to quote some passages, ones that appeal to me for various reasons.

This passage about friends resonates from my perspective as a septuagenarian.  Much of the novel is about the decline during those years.  By the 70’s one feels the weight, both physically and metaphysically. I continue the journey with, alas, a diminishing number of friends… Our oldest friends, their faces, never really change as we both travel at the same speed of life. Parents and children are different. They help us measure our existence like the clock on the wall or the watch on our wrist. But all friends carry with them a braided constant, part and hole, all the days in the calendar contained in a glance.

I like Gilbert’s description of the divergence of the roles of mothers and fathers, a common theme in literature and theatre…. I remember summer beach picnics organized by the Dyer and Topping women, the mothers curating our good cheer; Isabel took the photographs as Eleanor posed the players, the two of them hoping that these happy pictures might stand in for how we looked back, a prefabricated nostalgia.  If fathers are unknowable, then mothers are all too visible, a reminder of our earthly attachments.

Might Gilbert share some of A.D. Dyer’s feelings about the writing process?  After all, writing is work.  Gilbert took six years to write & Sons: The irony I would like to communicate to you boys is the fact that I never enjoyed writing very much. Oh, maybe I enjoyed the moments before writing, the thinking about writing, when the story starts to form around its cagey heart, a word an image, like with bodysurfing: in a flash I know everything, the themes, the metaphors, five of the characters, the setting, the time frame, the beginning, the middle, the end. It's a strange kind of fission, with a single atom of imagination radiates all this energy, splitting and splitting and splitting, endlessly splitting until you get Bodysurfing or The Bodysurfer which is probably better if perhaps bumping elbows with Cheever.  But then you have to write the goddamn thing and it's Chernobyl. Two headed cows. Terrible birth defects. And I'm not being glib here. I'm not playing a role, despite resemblance to actual persons living or dead.  I will grant you moments of satisfaction in the process, that this mess might make sense after all, that a random piece of filler, say the detail of an airplane flying overhead might beget a man parachuting down to earth. Yes there are moments. But it's not joy, just relief that the disappointment is manageable.

Having been a publisher all my life, I can attest to the veracity of Gilbert’s description of a publisher’s party to introduce a new author.  I’ve been to a few, although my kind of publishing – professional and academic – did not lend itself (thankfully) to a steady diet of these – they were the norm in trade publishing and I suppose they still are… These were the people who worked in publishing: the editors, the publicists, the marketers, the agents, all of whom arrived on time if almost early, not just because this was a work event but because this promised to be a rare work event that reminded them of when their industry burned bright in the New York sky, a place of true atmosphere instead of greenhouse gases. The excellent catering was also a draw. Dinner tonight came in a dozen bites. These people generally clustered in small groups mainly so they could gorge without embarrassment --  oh my God, the artichoke hearts with veal and ricotta is not of this world -- but also so they could rain down sulfur on the contemptible around them, right out of Trollope or Balzac, they might mutter, gesturing with herbed cheese straws.