Friday, February 26, 2016

In Your Face

It’s against the law to advertise tobacco products as their use might KILL you.  But no such ban against advertising guns which might KILL you as well.  So there it is, right in your face, some nifty hand pistols as advertised in our local Palm Beach Post. Buy them on credit with six months to pay! Nothing down! Step right up, come and get ‘em! 

Feb. 25 Palm Beach Post Ad

It is an interesting dilemma.  To buy a gun or not to buy, that is the question. The gun industry, our society in fact, wants you to feel unsafe UNLESS you have a gun.  We know people our age who have hand guns; they keep them in the car when they travel up and down the I95 corridor.  Should I feel safer or more unsafe because they and thousands of others like them have guns, ones that can be stolen, or be used ineptly by their owners?  What are the chances that some armed thug will be at a disadvantage because they have a .38 caliber pistol hidden somewhere?  Balance those probabilities against the chances of a gun being used against you in an instance of road rage or you becoming a collateral victim of a gun fight between a “good guy” and a “bad guy.”

Do we want our children to routinely see ads for guns?  It implies an acceptance by our society.  Yes, I know, the 2nd amendment, blah, blah, blah.  But must they be advertised in local, family newspapers?  Cigarette advertising is forbidden, but guns are fair game? 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A Musical Soiree at Dramaworks

Last night the Dramaworks faithful were treated to a special night, sponsored by the Dramaworks’ Theatre Guild, “A Musical Soiree” with Evans Haile, concert pianist and an advocate for the arts.  Proceeds from the event were dedicated to refurbishing the theatre's marquee.  It was also a special night for me as the co-chairperson of the event was my wife, Ann, and the other was our dear friend Joyce Reisman.  Together, with the help of the Council members of the Guild, they cooked, baked, and set up a feast for the lucky attendees, so many delectable dishes that most thought it was an elegant catered event.  If one could see our kitchen beforehand, it clearly demonstrated that the best caterers are members of the Guild themselves!  It is grass root support for one of the best regional theatres in the country.

After way too much food, we were treated to the piano virtuosity and wit of Evans Haile who between an interesting and humorous narrative performed some well known pieces by Frederic Chopin, Claude Debussy, and Franz Liszt and some not so well known pieces by composers he has a particular interest in, Moreau Gottschalk, and Ernesto Lecuona. I was wondering where one of my own favorites, Gershwin, might fit in.  Naturally, he concluded with Rhapsody in Blue! 

As an amateur pianist myself I asked him afterwards whether he was exhausted after such a virtuoso performance and he said he simply felt invigorated, although the difficult part is just getting into the performance initially. You wouldn’t know it when he first jumped into an interesting piece by the American composer, Gottschalk, written at about the time of the Civil War.  Haile reminded us that not long ago if you wanted to hear music you either played it or went someplace where it was played.  And that was a thread in his narrative during the evening.  Interesting and enjoyable to hear a master at work.

Before the concert, Dramaworks’ engaging Producing Artistic Director, Bill Hayes, announced next year’s Season.  He always seems to have a card up his sleeve, leading to some of the most interesting selections, always a visionary of what plays should be revived, as evidenced by Broadway having a tendency to follow in his footsteps, most recently with the production of Buried Child currently at The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre and the soon to open Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Roundabout Theatre.

Hayes steadfastly pursues the theatre’s mission statement: “To enhance the quality of life through the transformative power of live theatre.”  This is certainly evidenced by next year’s 2016-2017 Season which offers five provocative, widely acclaimed plays, each one, ‘theatre to think about.’  The season gets underway at the Don & Ann Brown Theatre on Friday evening, October 14 with Tennessee Williams' final masterpiece, the autumnal The Night of the Iguana (1961). That's followed on December 2 by Jay Presson Allen's wickedly funny Tru (1989), a one-man show that takes place at a particularly lonely time in the life of novelist Truman Capote. Next up, opening on February 3, is Collected Stories (1996), Donald Margulies' richly textured exploration of friendship and ethics between an older writer and her protégée. The season continues on March 29 with Tom Stoppard's Oliver Award-winning Arcadia (1993), his luminous and illuminating comedy of ideas that is set in two different centuries and is generally regarded as his finest work. The season concludes with The Cripple of Inishmaan (1996), Martin McDonagh's poignant, tragicomedy that carries on the tradition of great Irish storytelling.

Monday, February 15, 2016

American Rust to American Politics and Art for the One Percent

When I heard the praise heaped upon Philipp Meyer’s The Son which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, I was curious about his first published novel, American Rust.  It is a work of merit and promise, and a good read, close to a dystopian piece of fiction, the inverse of the American Dream, depicting the demise of the middle class and the seismic changes to the American landscape.  It is also a Bildungsroman, the protagonist, Isaac English, having to embark on an odyssey to escape the “American rust” of the Pittsburgh valley and its failed steel industry and his father as well, having to endure beatings, starvation and exhaustion during his journey, but ultimately returning home to save his friend Poe, and to find salvation.

This is a well-crafted character driven novel with each carrying a piece of the story, frequently that piece unknown to the others, at least in its entirety, and leaving the reader the omniscient observer.  Meyer skillfully maintains the suspense, making the book a page turner, to me one of the marks of a good writer.

The other characters are intertwined with the 19 year old Isaac English who was expected to go to any top college of his choice as he excelled in high school, as did his older sister, Lee, who went on to Yale on scholarship, and married wealthy right out of school.  Isaac stayed behind in the prison of his environment, to care for his father Henry who is in a wheelchair and also to be with his only friend, Billy Poe, two years older than Isaac, a star football player in high school who was expected to get an athletic scholarship to college, but ended up hanging around the dilapidated mill town mainly out of loyalty to his mother who is divorced, and living in a trailer.  There is the chief of police, Bud Harris, who loves Billy’s mother and has moved mountains to keep Billy on the straight and narrow.  And to further add complexity to the plot, there is the residual love affair between Billy and Isaac’s sister, the now married Lee, who returns to check on her father and finds her brother leaving.

I’ll not go into more details of the plot which brings all of this together but there are acts of sacrifice and love that ultimately set Isaac and Billy free.  Lurking in the background at all times though, are the remnants of the steel towns, the low-paying jobs left behind for those who have stayed and can find them, a future without a real future and violence.  The same feelings were invoked when I read about the empty mill towns of Richard Russo and the trailer parks of Russell Banks.  But Meyer’s writing is his own, and clever as he builds his novel chapter by chapter, from those different viewpoints, converging at the end. There is a little bit of modern day Kerouac here and even Salinger (such as the way Isaac in stream of consciousness refers to himself in the third person as “the kid”).

What came to mind over and over again is this election year.  Here we have two revolutionary yet entirely polarized players, the “democratic-socialist,” Bernie Sanders, and the “alpha male, say-anything-you-want” Donald Trump.  Each in their own way has forged a strong connection with the disenfranchised white middle class, or the young. What used to be a mainstream American Dream now exists mostly for the deliriously wealthy.  The phenomena of today’s Republican and Democratic primaries is the “do-you-hear-the-people-sing” voice of those who have been left holding the bag as we’ve morphed from a manufacturing economy to a techno-service based one. 

In this regard, Philipp Meyer’s American Rust speaks like John Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy, or John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  The topography of the problem is laid down in similar social commentary. Lee is driving her father for a medical appointment and Meyer observes: Farther along she couldn’t help noticing the old coal chute stretching the length of the hillside, passing high over the road on its steel supports, the sky visible through its rusted floor; the iron suspension bridge crossing the river. It was sealed at both ends, its entire structure similarly penetrated and pocked by rust. Then it seemed there was a rash of abandoned structures, an enormous steel-sided factory painted powder blue, its smokestacks stained with the ubiquitous red-brown streaks, its gate chained shut for how many years, it had never been open in her lifetime. In the end it was rust. That was what defined this place..

Isaac in his travels on foot is approaching a western PA town: From a distance it looked peaceful. Up close it looked abandoned-most of the buildings in complete disrepair, vandalism and neglect. He passed through the downtown, there were a few cars parked, but mostly it was empty buildings, old signs on old storefronts, ancient For Lease signs in most of the windows. The only hints of life came from the coke plant by the river, long corrugated buildings, a tall ventstack burning off wastegas, occasional billows of steam from the coke quenching. A scooploader big enough to pick up a semitrailer was taking coal from a barge and dumping it onto a conveyor toward the main plant. The train tracks were jammed with open railcars full of dusty black coke but other than Isaac, there was not another actual person in sight.

The consequences are destroyed lives. Harris describes it as “The Great Migration” as Steinbeck might have defined it himself: Passing through the town, past the old police station and the new one, he'd seen the Fall, the shuttering of the mills, and the Great Migration that followed. Migration to nowhere-thousands of people moved to Texas, tens of thousands, probably, hoping for jobs on oil rigs, but there weren't many of those jobs to be had. So those people had ended up worse off than they started, broke and jobless in a place they didn't know anyone. The rest had just disappeared. And you would never know it. He'd watched guys go from making thirty dollars an hour to four-fifteen, a big steelworker bagging his groceries, stone-faced, there was no easy way for anyone to deal with it.

Migration jobs like the ones offered to Billy Poe involve constant traveling to dispose of the flotsam of shutting down our manufacturing facilities and its environmental impact: There was an opening at a company that did the plastic seals for landfills. Traveling all over the country. At new landfills they would lay down the plastic liners in preparation for garbage to be dumped there, to prevent leakage into nearby streams and such. At the old landfills they would seal them up, it was like a giant ziplock, a heavy layer of plastic overtop the garbage and then they blew them up with air to test them, just before they dumped the soil on top you could run across the acres of plastic, bouncing, it was like running on the moon…it was fourteen dollars an hour to start. But it was not really running on the moon. It was working with other people's trash. Technicians, they called themselves, but it was not really that. It was laying plastic overtop of trash heaps, it was hanging around city dumps. Your country is supposed to do better….[And then there was] dismantling work, taking apart mills and old factories, they had taken down old steelmills all over the country, locally and nationally. But…there was so much traveling, it was living out of a suitcase the entire year….The work was all in the Midwest now, taking down the auto plants in Michigan and Indiana. And one day even that work would end, and there would be no record, nothing left standing, to show that any-thing had ever been built in America. It was going to cause big problems, he didn't know how but he felt it. You could not have a country, not this big, that didn't make things for itself. There would be ramifications eventually.

Lee’s teacher in high school had come to the town decades before when the steel mills were thriving.  He moved to the Valley to bring socialism to the mills, he'd been a steelworker for ten years, lost his job and become a teacher. Graduated from Cornell and became a steelworker. There were lots of us, he'd told her. Reds working right alongside the good old boys. But there had never been any revolution, not anything close, a hundred and fifty thousand people lost their jobs but they had all gone quietly. It was obvious there were people responsible, there were living breathing men who'd made those decisions to put the entire Valley out of work, they had vacation homes in Aspen, they sent their kids to Yale, their portfolios went up when the mills shut down. But, aside from a few ministers who'd famously snuck into a white-glove church and thrown skunk oil on the wealthy pastor, no one lifted a hand in protest. There was something particularly American about it-blaming yourself for bad luck-that resistance to seeing your life as affected by social forces, a tendency to attribute larger problems to individual behavior. The ugly reverse of the American Dream. In France, she thought, they would have shut down the country. They would have stopped the mills from closing. But of course you couldn't say that in public…

Which brings us to the present, the “ugly reverse of the American Dream…you weren't supposed to get laid off if you were good at your job” and the consequences, a barbell society, lots of people at the one extreme, a select few at the other, and the vanishing middle class in between.  Indeed, there are “ramifications” reflected in the contentious presidential debates, the right moving further to the right and the left moving further to the left, not exactly what our founding fathers envisioned.

And speaking of how the other half of the upper 1% live, this past week featured the annual Palm Beach Jewelry, Art & Antique Show which we like to visit but with a look-but-do-not-touch mind-set.  Actually, it’s with an “unable-to-touch” approach as some of the works of art there are priced at $250k plus although there are some nifty pieces for “only” $10k. It is like an eclectic museum and it appeals to my idiosyncratic taste in “art.”

We attended it on “President’s Day” weekend.  Here is yet another change in American Life. We used to celebrate Washington’s Birthday on February 22, but that fell on unpredictable days of the week and there was Lincoln’s February 12 birthday to consider, so it became a compromised holiday, conveniently on a Monday for the benefit of blockbuster “Presidential” mattress and automobile sales.  Sorry, General Washington.

Nonetheless, at the show I was drawn to Mark Daly’s Broad Street Commute, President’s Day, oil on linen, painted in the classic impressionist style, one I’m particularly fond of and of the subject as well.  Merely a cool $14.5K. 

I’m a sucker for sea scenes, especially of the old classic sailing ships and if I had “another” $168k would be snapping up Montague Dawson’s Blue Pacific, The Titania.

Given the solipsism of today’s world, I was intrigued by Susan P. Cochran sculpture Narcissistic Ant.  Not sure that I have an appropriate place in the house to display it though : - )

Finally, after walking the exhibit, I thought a good cup of coffee might be tasty, but I was told to keep my coffee beans to myself when approaching the polished American Duplex Fresh Ground Coffee Maker on display – unless I had $14k.

Indeed, an interesting display of objects of art, but not to be outdone by the sunset a few days ago taken from our own backyard.  American rust, American dreams, dysfunctional government, all can take a back seat to this….

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Dramaworks’ Long Day’s Journey into Night –a Landmark Production

Last night a hushed, frequently stunned audience witnessed Dramaworks’ long anticipated production of Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill. It takes America’s greatest playwright to reach the inner depths of his tortured soul, creating a virtual verisimilitude of his own family life (it is as autobiographical as any play ever written; he viewed writing it as an act of forgiveness).  And it takes a great production company to nurture this spiraling inward play, sustaining the drama for more than three intense hours.  All four of the actors portraying the Tyrone family deliver electrifying and physically exhausting performances.  Although this was the company’s very first performance of the play in front of an audience (a “preview”), it was flawless to my eye, a master class of staging, directing and acting.

Long Day’s Journey is but a day’s journey although it encapsulates a lifetime. It unfolds one late summer’s day in 1912 at the family’s home by the Connecticut seashore, a place not unlike O’Neill’s summer childhood in New London.  The action unremittingly reveals well worn emotional paths to the present. Love transitions to hate and hate to anger and then to contrition and guilt and thus back to love.  The Tyrone family knows how to love, but does not know how to be loving.  It is a study of emotional ups and downs, the audience rising with the few crests and falling with the numerous troughs.

The play revolves around the life of James Tyrone, the family patriarch, an actor whose “good bad luck” was to “find the big money-maker,” a romantic part in Monte Cristo, a play that became a box office success and had the Tyrone family on the road for most of their formative lives. It brought money, a considerable amount in those days.  But Tyrone sold his soul, knowing he could have been a great Shakespearian actor.  That shame shadows him and corrodes his family.  He is obsessed with money, the wastefulness of leaving lights on, the imprudence of hiring expensive doctors for his wife, and his son, Edmund, and is continually derided by his family for being a tightwad.

Maureen Anderman, Dennis Creaghan
The role of James Tyrone is among the most challenging in American Drama and veteran Dramaworks actor Dennis Creaghan makes it his own, embracing the alternating sadness, anger, regret, and even love.  Alcohol is his refuge, its tentacles reaching out to his sons.  It is a wrenching performance by Creaghan and although much of the family’s pain can be traced to him, James had his own hardships as a child and one’s heart goes out to him thanks to Creaghan’s sensitive portrayal.

Mary, his wife, is played by Maureen Anderman, a last minute replacement for the original actress who had to leave the production for personal reasons.  It is a difficult part to play with adequate preparation, but to perform this demanding role on short notice (although the opening was delayed six days) is simply remarkable, and Anderman being such a pro, a Broadway actress who we’ve seen before at Dramaworks, at the Maltz Theatre, and most recently at the Westport Country Playhouse this past summer, delivers a performance which theatre lovers will always remember and associate her with.  She is achingly heartbreaking as Tyrone’s wife.  O’Neill has given us a window into Mary’s subconscious with her suspicion of not being trusted, deep shame, and eventual disappearance into drugged somnambulism.  Along with the believable gnarled hands and regal bearing, Anderman gives us a fully fleshed and real character that astounds with its perfection. She has complete command of every aspect of Mary’s persona.
Michael Stewart Allen, John Leonard Thompson, Dennis Creaghan, Maureen Anderman

Mary had her dreams too.  Before meeting her husband, she was in a convent school and had thoughts of being a concert pianist or even a nun.  She was swept off her feet by James but increasingly her life became one of a secondary player to James, accompanying him while he was on the road which was most of the time.  The only “home” she has known is their summer residence on the sea.  And it is a permanent “home” she has longed for.  “In a real home one is never lonely,” she says to James, reminding him that she gave up such a home – her father’s – to marry him. “I knew from experience by then that children should have homes to be born in, if they are to be good children, and women need homes.”  Also in the context of “home,” she acknowledges that the men in her family have “barrooms where they feel at home.”

Her life as an appendage to James is bad enough.  But O’Neill drills down further into her heartache where the rarely mentioned sorrow of their deceased child, notably named Eugene, resides.  Eugene would have been the middle son had he not died when he was two, exposed to the disease by the older son, Jamie, before the youngest son, Edmund, was born. Thus Mary’s accusation: “Oh, I know Jamie was only seven, but he was never stupid. He’d been warned it might kill the baby.  He knew.  I’ve never been able to forgive him for that.”

Following Edmund’s birth (which she perceived as a duty to her husband, following the death of Eugene) and Mary’s increasing feeling of isolation and blame, she turns to morphine as her chosen remorse-killer to which she becomes addicted for the rest of her life.

John Leonard Thompson, Michael Stewart Allen
She worries about the health of her younger son, Edmund, and although she is in constant denial about the seriousness of his condition, he is finally diagnosed with tuberculosis.  Edmund is played by a new Dramaworks face, Michael Stewart Allen, an experienced Shakespearian actor.  Edmund is O’Neill’s alter ego and much of the playwright’s tortured and poetic observations are expressed through him.  Allen’s portrayal of Edmund’s drunken conversation with his father in Act IV is passionate and his final confrontation with his brother reveals a physical side which takes the audience by surprise.  He is there to be pitied by the family, always a source of their guilt, and, yet, if anyone is “the sanest” in the family, Allen brings that out.

Jamie or James Jr. is played by another Dramaworks pro, John Leonard Thompson.  Here is yet an additional dynamic for the family’s dysfunctional gristmill: the failed older son who holds on to his “infinite sorrow of life.” He is his father’s greatest disappointment.  Jamie’s cynicism is his protection from the truth but when drunk (which is most of the time) his love-hate relationship with Edmund comes to the surface, jealous of his younger brother on the one hand and loving on the other. "You're all I've got left" he drunkenly confesses. Nonetheless he has introduced his younger brother to the same debauchery in which he has indulged; bars and prostitutes. Thompson’s portrayal of Jamie’s antagonism gathers momentum to the final drunken confrontation with his brother in the last scenes.  It is a physically exhausting performance and, as I think O’Neill intended, one does feel pity and fear for the tragedy of being the first born in the Tyrone family.  John Leonard Thompson, who has excelled in so many Dramaworks productions, will be remembered for this extraordinary portrayal of so many conflicting emotions.

Maureen Anderman, Carey Urban
Carey Urban, making her debut at Dramaworks, is Cathleen, a household servant, the only non-family member in the play.  Although a minor character, she plays an important role, briefly imbibing with Mary, waiting for the men to return home, expressing rage at the druggist in filling Mary’s morphine prescription (which Mary insists is for “rheumatism”).  Urban provides what little comic relief there is in the play with aplomb.

And as the home is by the sea, there are numerous references to the fog.  It is both a source of comfort and of sadness. It is a porous curtain into the past.  Mary wonders “why is it fog makes everything sound so sad and lost?”  Edmund, the younger son laments “Who wants to see life as it is, if they can help it?” It is a symbolic reminder of the kind of fog hanging in their lives, alcohol for the Tyrone men and the opiate for Mary to diminish the pain of their past histories.  The fog actually enters the home in the last act, seemingly seeking out Mary in her final Ophelia-like scene.

Accusations and regret make up the “action.” The Tyrones have to exhume the past to deal with the present and lie (to themselves as well as to each other) to exculpate their guilt.  It is simply a masterpiece of painful writing and brilliant performances. The dark and personal content challenges the directors and the actors every step in the development and its execution.  Performing Long Day’s Journey has to take its toll day in and day out.  It is emotionally exhausting.

We were fortunate to be able to briefly attend one of the rehearsals a couple of weeks before the opening.  It was the “tech week” where Dramaworks blends all the technical elements, lighting and sound while choreographing the blocking and movement of the actors.  We saw two brief scenes from Act I and Act IV, one between James Sr. (Dennis Creaghan) and James Jr. (John Leonard Thompson) and the other between James Sr. and Edmund (Michael Stewart Allen). 

At times Director Bill Hayes and Assistant Director Paul Stancato (they worked as a team on this production) stopped the action, discussing their concerns with the actors and the actors making some counter arguments.  There must be hundreds of such tiny tweaking moments, the invisible hands of the director to help make the scenes authentic and dramatic.  It is a process of trust, starting with casting, the director having to trust the actors for such a collaboratory effort, this trust ultimately extending to the audience. Bill Hayes felt the Dramaworks’ audience -- as well as the theatre’s production team -- was ready for such a journey.  Both Hayes and Stancato (who will direct a future Dramaworks production, solo, next season) successfully merge the symbolic and literary elements of the play.  And the play does read like a novel, O’Neill providing extensive, descriptive stage directions which must be interpreted by the director.

The technicians behind the actors and the director are top notch.  Scenic design is by K. April Soroko, and lighting design is by Donald Edmund Thomas.  The lighting evolves as morning passes into the afternoon, to twilight and finally to midnight connoting the dark denouement. Even the lighting of John Singer Sargent’s paintings was studied to capture the time period and mood.  At the conclusion of Act II, a dramatic bright white spotlight shines on Mary, dressed in white, as “she gives a little despairing laugh” [stage directions] saying, “Then Mother of God, why do I feel so lonely?”  The spotlight fades and cuts to darkness.  Intermission.

The relatively shallow stage of Dramaworks’ theater is compensated by its breadth. There is an upstairs and an outside where the fog comes and goes.  It is a sea-side home of some substance by 1912 standards, wood-paneled, a book case, framed pictures of Shakespeare, and another of a Monte Cristo 19th century playbill, the play which made O’Neill’s father rich playing the role more than 6,000 times.  Costume design is by Brian O'Keefe with his usual careful attention to period dress.  Sound design is by Matt Corey and along with the fog, there is the obligatory fog horn, timed to sound at some of the most dramatic moments.

A final tip of the hat to James Danford, the Stage Manager, a tireless role, the man who attends to the scores and scores of details on stage, right down to the levels of the liquid in the liquor bottles (many of which are gone through during the production).  Danford is in his fourth season at Dramaworks, an enthusiastic pro in every way.

In short, if you are ready to see the greatest American play, and perhaps one of its best productions, take a journey with the Tyrone family and strap on your seat belt at Dramaworks.