Monday, February 27, 2017

Fake News in La La Land

As they say, you can’t make this stuff up.  I speak of the Academy Awards’ embarrassing mistake of naming La La Land Best Picture, only to have to retract that in the middle of La La’s acceptance speech, naming Moonlight.  This is all because Price Waterhouse Coopers gave the presenters the wrong envelope.  Perhaps the Academy is shopping for a new accounting firm?  In this era of “fake news” the mistake only feeds the Zeitgeist.  Maybe it was Russian hacking?  It's one thing to tamper with the election and it’s quite another to mess with the Academy!

I have not seen Moonlight, but it does sound like award-winning material, adapted from a play.  However, I loved La La Land, particularly Emma Stone’s rendition of the song “The Audition” which I have made part of my piano repertoire.  I also admired the film as a throwback to filmed musicals of the past, albeit updated for our times. 

Our friends Betty and Claudia were visiting this weekend, both movie buffs, and they had not seen Fences (nor had we) and I was surprised to find the film being offered on pay-per-view so we watched it before the Academy Awards yesterday.  I was stunned.  August Wilson stands among the greatest American playwrights.  Although the movie rights to the Pulitzer Prize winning play were bought soon after the play opened in 1987, it was only recently produced as Wilson had insisted that the film have a black director.  His wishes continued to be honored after his death in 2005.  It was Denzel Washington, one of our finest actors, who finally was chosen to direct and star in the play – he was in the 2010 revival of the play on Broadway with Viola Davis as well.  I was surprised that Washington was not even nominated for best director, although he was up for best actor.  Until I see Moonlight, which won for the “best” film, I can’t comment, but what Washington accomplished as a director and as an actor has to be greatly admired.  Viola Davis was spectacular as well.  I will not easily forget this film, Wilson’s writing, or the performances.

When you think about it, how does one chose between a La La Land, Fences, or Moonlight – all award deserving in their own right?  It’s one of the reasons why the Academy Awards doesn’t resonate with me.  I watched part of it, but did not see the controversial ending; both Moonlight and La La Land deserved better.  But so did Fences and Denzel Washington.

I mentioned this before, but never went into any detail.  We attended the 1980 Academy Awards as a guest of the Academy.  Their Annual Motion Picture Credits Database was published by my firm at the time.  In those days, such information was in reference book form.  I used to visit the Academy and the American Film Institute searching for publishable material.

When I received an invitation to attend the Awards, I was able to combine the trip to LA with one of my editorial efforts, and, of course, Ann wanted to join me so I accepted.  Unfortunately, this is way before cell phone cameras and I thought it a little tacky to arrive with my full-size Nikon hanging from my shoulder, so I have no photographs to record the experience.

I had a rented car (not very fancy) and wore just a plain suit.  Ann was dressed nicely but no designer dress or even borrowed jewels.  A valet took our car and in spite of being unknowns (and looking the part), we walked down the red carpet to some applause.  No one asked for our autograph, though : - ).

This was Johnny Carson’s second year as host and the big film, winning most of the awards was Kramer vs. Kramer.  Coincidentally I had met the author of the book on which the film was based, Avery Corman, a year or two before.  He politely autographed a pre-production copy at the American Booksellers Association meeting after we discussed why I felt a special connection with his book: I had been divorced ten years earlier with similar custody issues.

Back to the Academy Awards, I remember standing next to Gregory Peck during one of the brief breaks, I wanted to say something, but felt it would be intrusive.  So we just stood there, admiring all the screen actors I recognized and he knew well.  It was a lot of fun to attend this major Hollywood event, but Ann and I were outsiders, looking in.

After watching the film Fences we took Betty and Claudia to our favorite Sunday night place, Double Roads Tavern in Jupiter to listen to the Jupiter Jazz Society’s weekly jam session.  Professionals play but other musicians can sit in for a set or two.  I’d like to do that myself but as most of my piano playing has been solo; I don’t have the skills for impromptu jazz accompaniment.  So, we go just to enjoy and support such a worthwhile effort.  Organizer Rick Moore, who plays the keyboard with the best of them, gathers a wide range of musicians, ones just starting out, but oh so talented, to retired and seasoned professionals who just like to jam.  It is Rick (and his wife, Cherie, a co-founder of the Society) who drive the mission to preserve jazz for future generations.  And future generations are responding.  Ava Faith, a 13 year old singer, made a surprise appearance last night after singing the National Anthem at the Marlins’ spring training game.  She already has the right stuff, a great young jazz voice and a personality that is impressive.  Wonderful to hear that generation perform the Great American Songbook and to know it will endure.  I tried to capture a brief clip with my twitter feed…
To round out yesterday, in the morning Claudia and I took a walk on the beach in Juno, watching the sun rising over the pier…

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Mentor’s Influence Never Stops

How many of us have had important mentors, without whom our lives may have turned out very differently?  When thinking about my own life, the first name that springs to my mind is Roger Brickner. I’ve written about him before, and this entry provides much of the background.  In short, he was my Honors Economics teacher and my grade advisor when I was a senior at Richmond Hill High School.  Miraculously, we reconnected 50 years later as he was the honorary chairman of my high school’s 1960 class 50th reunion, one I was unable to attend.  But since then we’ve been in touch by email, particularly during Presidential and mid-term elections.  You see Roger’s avocation – among other interests since retiring from teaching – is analyzing elections and projecting outcomes.  As he said “my interest in politics is an enthusiastic avocation. I began to predict presidential elections as a teenager and since I thought Dewey would win in 1948 I have been lucky to pick every winner since that time.”  That is, until the recent election. 

In addition, he is an amateur weatherman, taking after his own heroes, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, carefully recording the salient weather facts at his early 19th century home in the heart of Haverhill, NH.  And he still loves to travel, having been to more than 100 countries and to most U.S. states. 

Between our travels and his, we knew there would be a time they would intersect and yesterday was the day, as he and a friend were making their way south, having stayed in Charleston SC for a while, and now on their way to Deerfield Beach, FL.  So he called and I suggested we meet for lunch at The Cooper in Palm Beach Gardens.

It had been 57 years since I last saw him; he has the same energetic, optimistic personality.  But did he realize how important he was to me at a critical juncture in my life?  Clearly he did not.  I didn’t know why I was selected for his Honors Economics class as my status in high school in the first three years would be almost classified as juvenile delinquent (the same old story, rebelling from my parents, in with the wrong crowd, taking pleasure just getting by in class, all in preparation to enter my father’s photographic business, a tacit obligation as I would be the fourth generation to run the business). 

Roger said I was selected because he thought I was bright enough to do the work and with that encouragement I was turned on to learning, really for the first time in my life.  We were expected to do a term paper, just like in college!  I selected the topic of motivational research which at the time interested me.

So what did I bring when I saw Roger yesterday?  That paper.  He must have thought it bizarre that one would keep such a token of the distant past.  As a turning point in my life I obviously felt I should keep it (got an “A” by the way).  We were both amused to read my sophomoric conclusion: “Today [1959] motivational research is being used mainly to manipulate the consumer and slowly being used to direct the citizen.  Perhaps in the future manipulators will be trying to control every phase of our lives.”  Roger circled that and wrote boldly: “Surely you must have some comment on this.  Hitler, of course, was a master of these techniques – what shall we do about it?”  And now, we both agreed, perhaps that may be happening via social media, “fake news” etc.  So what should we do about it?

And that is Roger, always inspiring.  Without him, maybe I would have gone into my father’s business, which would have failed anyhow.  I still enjoy photography, but strictly as a hobby. So, I ended up doing what I loved, not photography or motivational research, but publishing. 

Then (from my HS Yearbook, my photo partially sullied by a classmate and Roger’s, one that I took as I was the photographer for the Yearbook)…
Roger Brickner

And now…..

Yesterday we talked a lot about Richmond Hill where we both grew up.  At one time he lived on the same street as my grandfather – 109th street off of Jamaica Avenue.  I spent my grammar school days at PS 90 right opposite my grandfather’s home which became my Uncle Phil’s.   

109th Street, Richmond Hill, NY

We moved to 115th Street and 84th Avenue right before I began High School – a long walk then as there were no school buses.  At one time Roger lived near Lefferts Blvd, which was near my home as well.  He went on to Queens College and then Columbia for his Master’s Degree with a nearly two year interlude in the army serving during the Korean War.

Reminiscing, we couldn’t help but think of Jahn’s as Roger had ordered The Cooper Sundae for dessert which was a dead ringer for Jahn’s infamous “Kitchen Sink.”

Good times, good talk, and it was great to see him 57 years later, and to thank him.

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. Henry Adams

Saturday, February 18, 2017

‘Disgraced’ At the Maltz – Lives Come Apart at the Seams

How does a Pulitzer Prize prizing winning play written several years ago simply become more and more relevant since it was first produced?  Is it a case of life imitating art?  Here is a play about an upcoming corporate lawyer, Amir, attempting to become fully assimilated into the cultural circle of professionals, to distance himself from his Muslim heritage through marriage and lifestyle, only to watch that fa├žade implode.

The unseen element in the play is the current political environment, the result of a campaign full of invectives directed at, among others, Muslims, and the resulting highly contested “Muslim travel ban” and reports of illegal Immigration and Customs Enforcement roundups and deportations.  Playwright Ayad Akhtar might not have fully foreseen these extreme events when he wrote Disgraced, but after 9/11 he knew the xenophobic direction it was taking us and its impact on a man of Islamic heritage.

Amir (Fajer Kaisi) and his wife Emily (Vanessa Morosco) are pursuing the classic American Dream, living in a sophisticated Upper East Side apartment, obviously possessing the resources to enjoy their professional lives.  The set by Anne Mundell and the lighting by Paul Black telegraph Manhattan power couple.  It is a crisp, contemporary setting with a view of the Manhattan skyline from their balcony.

As a mergers and acquisition lawyer, Amir has acquired all the trappings of master of his craft.  Fajer Kaisi revels in his alpha male role, one which takes him from brash overconfidence to a stunning reversal of fortune.  He powerfully delivers this plunge with steely skill.  We first see him stridently berating his paralegal for missing three words in a contract, screaming into the phone “that’s why we pay you six figures!”

Fajer Kaisi and Eddie Morales
Emily, an artist, accepts this behavior as perfectly normal in her volatile husband who in turn is amused by and tolerates her latest passionate love for Islamic Art, something acquired during their travels in Moorish inspired Spain.  While he mildly encourages her latest works, it is also clear that he is not happy about this obsession.  Vanessa Morosco as Emily is a highly accomplished actress who portrays a striving artist waiting for her first big show, a wife devotedly in love who never fully grasps her husband’s deepest insecurities and secrets.

Amir’s nephew, Abe, sensitively played by Eddie Morales with wide-eyed adoration of his uncle is disturbed that a local Imam has been falsely imprisoned.  He feels this is politically motivated, and the manifestation of growing Muslimophobia.  He comes to his Aunt and Uncle for their help.  Emily urges her husband to lend his professional legal advice.  He loves his wife and reluctantly agrees.  Eventually there is a trial. However Amir’s name is mentioned in a newspaper article about the case although he wasn’t acting on behalf of the defendant, but suddenly his firm is aware of his Islamic background, something he has conspicuously hidden.

Vanessa Morosco, Fajer Kaisi, Chantal Jean-Pierre, Joel Reuben Ganz
The stage is set for a developing train wreck of a “dinner with friends,” one Emily gives for Isaac (Joel Reuben Ganz ) an art gallery owner who wants to exhibit her work and has more than a professional interest in, and his wife, Jory (Chantal Jean-Pierre), who coincidentally works with Amir in the same law firm.  The evening devolves into an increasingly revelatory and combative conversation between a Muslim (albeit assimilated), a Jew, the African-American attorney and a WASP, where Amir has to confront himself and his apostate views. 

Both Joel Reuben Ganz and Chantal Jean-Pierre as the interracial couple give outstanding, persuasive performances, Ganz a credible foil to Kaisi’s Amir and Jean-Pierre's Jory providing some well timed comic lines.  She comports herself with the precision of another professional on the move to corporate greatness.  The pot is stirred with a boiling brew of high voltage issues, religion, the clash of cultures and civilizations; Christian, Judaic, and Islamic, as well as the volatility and infidelity of both marriages.

With the help of the ubiquitous truth-teller, alcohol, Amir, who is already feeling deeply abased by his law firm is steadily driven into the recesses of his ancestry to the point of uttering the unutterable, that the crucible of 9/11 gave him some secret satisfaction; it is a pin-dropping game changer in the play.  Although he defends the revelation as being “tribal” and “in his bones,” he has become radioactive, meant to be shunned by the ultimate fall from grace.  The contrast is striking.  He is a broken man -- and the audience is left to deliberate whether there is any hope for the millennium old conflict of religious indoctrination and bias.

It is stunning, powerful theatre.  As J. Barry Lewis, the seasoned director of some 200 shows including many others at The Maltz as well as Dramaworks said “Disgraced focuses on the various ways each of us secretly continue to hold on to our tribal identities – our identities from birth, of our education – in spite of our various and ongoing attempts to enlighten our lives. We are products of the world we create, often finding safety in those tribal identities. The play has been called 'an evening of cocktails and confessions,’ and it is certain to spark dialogue about our own contradictions.”  Lewis skillfully brings those observations front and center utilizing a talented group of actors and technical professionals.

In addition to Paul Black’s lighting, Lewis had Marty Mets’ skillful sound design, the opening scene overlaying Middle Eastern music with the sounds of the city below, segueing to the music alone during scene changes and then, again, the unmistakable sounds of the city when Amir angrily opens the door to their balcony, a reminder of the world from which he is suddenly ostracized.  Leslye Menshouse’s costume design is chic, in keeping with the sophisticated early 21st century Manhattan professional environment, replete with Amir’s expensive dress shirts.

The Maltz Theatre typically presents musicals, the majority of which are thoroughly outstanding.  They have also presented some remarkable serious theatre, Red and Other Desert Cities to name just a couple.  Seeing Disgraced there makes you yearn for more of these blockbusting dramas.

[Photographs of the actors by Alicia Donelan]