Friday, November 24, 2017

‘Billy and Me’ by Terry Teachout to Premiere at Palm Beach Dramaworks

Tom Wahl and Nicholas Richberg
as William Inge and Tennessee Williams

Those fortunate enough to be in the West Palm Beach area will have a unique theatre opportunity beginning Dec. 8th.  Palm Beach Dramaworks is mounting the world premiere of a play by Terry Teachout, Billy and Me, in which he has imagined a tempestuous friendship between two of our most renowned twentieth century playwrights, Tennessee Williams and William (Billy) Inge.  This is a major step in the maturation of PBD under the creative direction of its Producing Artistic Director, William Hayes.  His vision has been to supplement the company’s acclaimed classics by also producing completely original works from the very beginning through numerous rewrites, collaborations, rehearsals and eventually onto the PBD stage, and even beyond, to New York and as a staple of regional theaters throughout the U.S.

Billy and Me is a memory play narrated by Tennessee Williams.  Act I is set in a gay bar in Chicago on New Year’s Eve, 1944, immediately after a pre-Broadway tryout of Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.    Williams is on the ascent in Act I, but Inge is an unhappy theatre critic as well as miserable in his personal life.  Seeing The Glass Menagerie that night has inspired Inge to try his hand at play writing.  Act II takes place almost 15 years later at Inge's Sutton Place apartment, a few hours after the Broadway premiere of his first flop, A Loss of Roses.  Inge has had years of hits, is at the height of his career (and prosperity), while Williams’ decline was already underway.  Inge is having difficulty reconciling himself to his first flop as well as his closeted sexuality.

William Hayes
According to Hayes, who is directing Billy and Me and was the inspiration for the play, “the genesis of the idea was while I was directing Picnic, doing research, and was reminded that Inge met Tennessee Williams in 1944, and I began to imagine the intricacy of their relationship, about which little is really known. They must have influenced one another, I thought. They shared similar backgrounds, both being from small towns, had complicated relationships with their mothers, fathers who were frequently absent as they were salesmen, and both were gay, Williams acknowledging it, but Inge self loathing.”

So Hayes suggested the idea of a play about the two famous playwrights to Terry Teachout who was in town for pre-production meetings for his play Satchmo at the Waldorf, which was playing at the end of the same season as Picnic at PBD.  Teachout was intrigued.  After meeting with Hayes, he flew home when the idea for the structure of the play came to him in an epiphany.  “I even had the 2nd’ act nailed, so I knew I was on solid ground. I called Bill and said ‘I have it!’ and went back to West Palm to meet with Bill and we both agreed that we saw the project in the same way and knew we would work together well. After making my directing debut at PBD last season, I know very well that it's a great place to work, a gorgeous theatre full of first-class people. I also know that Bill is a superb director.”

Terry Teachout
Then soon after the structure was established, Teachout wrote the play in a three day frenzy.  That was more than a year ago and since then it has been “workshopped” by PBD, undergoing revisions.  As Teachout explained, “workshopping is the modern day replacement for out of town tryouts which used to be the norm.”  These workshops have been tirelessly and inspirationally orchestrated by Hayes.

Teachout fills the threadbare historical record of the two playwrights’ personal relationship guided by his knowledge of the men and their plays.  Thus the play is "a work of fiction freely based on fact."  "It's a play about love, jealousy, and - not to put it too pompously - destiny," said Teachout. "An artist is a person who can't do anything else with his life. Art is his fate: it's that or nothing. But he can't become an artist until he accepts that fate and acknowledges his true nature. That's a big part of what this play is about: the struggle of two great American playwrights to come to terms with who they really were."

I asked him about the difficulties he had in writing the play and he responded “nothing excites an artist more than limitations that must be surmounted and the problem with depicting Inge is how do you warm up to him? How do you make him relatable? But having reviewed more than 1,000 theatrical performances in my career taught me much about how a play works, how you have to make difficult decisions about when action starts and stops.” 

There are three actors in the play.  Two of them have been with the play ever since the first workshop production, Nicholas Richberg who plays Tennessee Williams, and Tom Wahl as William Inge.  Joining those two about half way through the developmental process is veteran PBD actor Cliff Burgess, who plays three roles.

Nicholas Richberg has been involved in several developmental plays, mostly with Zoetic Stage, but he says this experience was “my longest development process, a huge gift to an actor. Terry is the writer, but it allows the actors to contribute and shape it and it’s incredible to see the changes over time.”

Richberg is also an experienced musical performer, appearing in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ 1776 last year, and in several Sondheim productions in the past and thinks of both Sondheim and Williams as geniuses in their genres.  He has no preference playing musical or drama as long as he is “interpreting the words /music of the author.”

He sees his biggest challenge in this play is to capture the characteristics of Tennessee Williams – usually well known to the audience because Williams was clearly gay, and granted numerous interviews, some while he was obviously drunk.  Both he and Wahl worked with a dialogue coach to get their speech patterns right and even so,” these are not impersonations” both opined.  But the real challenge goes beyond that Richberg said: “playing a real person, having the audience truly care about him, and what motivated him.”

His favorite line from the play is “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – start with the truth and then make it beautiful.”  And that sort of captures the essence of Teachout’s writing he says, “Making the language beautiful, almost like music, poetic.”

“My one wish as an actor was to play Tom in The Glass Menagerie, and, finally, with Billy and Me, I am in a memory play about Tennessee Williams: it’s as rewarding for an actor as playing Tom.”

Inge is played by Tom Wahl, making his PBD debut. He said “I like the challenge of playing the lesser known (as a public persona) Inge, as I have a free hand in interpreting. I see Inge in a constant struggle, finding himself, starting his career as an actor, turning to teaching, then becoming a critic, and then a playwright, always seeming to being either in the wrong place or in the wrong skin. And when finally he is true to himself, he is disgusted by it.”

Wahl also loved being involved in the workshop experience since the beginning, allowing him to make contributions and growing into his character, the shy, repressed William Inge.  Wahl said “although perhaps better known for his other plays and movies, my favorite is Dark at the Top of the Stairs, his last major play.”  In addition to his extensive acting experience, Wahl is a versatile voiceover artist and voice actor.

Cliff Burgess
Cliff Burgess has appeared in many PBD productions and although he stepped into the developmental process later than the other two actors, he was able to provide some valuable input “through fresh eyes.”  Also as a fledgling playwright himself “the process allowed me to see the director and the playwright in action.”

He plays three characters in the play, the waiter in Act I, the doctor in Act II, and the stage manager in both acts. What he finds fascinating about each is that they are not tangential “as each character has a purpose and each has an impact on Williams and Inge.  I play characters ‘of the more mundane world, and supply some comic relief too.’”

Interestingly, Burgess has played Tom in The Glass Menagerie twice in his career and in Inge’s Bus Stop, so he is intimately familiar with their works, and “I recognize the suffering of each and their humanity.”

Billy and Me “inspired by the friendship between playwrights Tennessee Williams and William Inge,” is Directed by William Hayes, PBD’s Producing Artistic Director.

The playwright, Terry Teachout, is drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, has had an uncommonly diverse career.  He was a professional jazz bassist for eight years, and has also been a dance and music critic, an editorial writer, and a member of the National Council on the Arts.  He has written the libretti for three operas and is the author of numerous books, including Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.  His play Satchmo at the Waldorf was written after the Armstrong biography.

Scenic Design is by Victor Becker, Lighting Design by Paul Black, and Costume Design by Brian O'Keefe.  Billy and Me will grace the stage at Palm Beach Dramaworks on Clematis Street, West Palm Beach, from December 8 to the 31st with previews on December 6 and 7.  

UPDATE:  My Review of the play now posted

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Over and Over Again

I’m sick of watching what has become of our country.  Mass slaughtering reduced to biblical rhetoric of good vs. evil, with responses of tougher immigration laws if the murderer is anyone of middle eastern descent and “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and their families if the assault is committed by a Caucasian nut job. 

Good vs. evil.  “May God be with you,” offered to the Texas town of the church shootings.  In a church of worship!  Where was God at that moment?  How can these incidents be reduced to the simplistic good vs. evil?

It plays into our psyche of “good guys” coming to the rescue, the rationalization that MORE guns are needed by the “good guys” to offset those carried by the “bad guys.”  Where is the Lone Ranger when you need him?  Even better, Superman!  The Texas Attorney General suggested that churches should consider armed worshipers.  This is a solution?

Let’s get serious about gun control once and for all.  If we had more restrictive gun ownership legislation after the University of Texas tower shooting in 1966, where would we be today?  It has to start sometime, and the moment has arrived to ban assault weapons.  Go a step further and require registration of weapons as we do motor vehicles.  Provide a government cash bounty for anyone turning in an assault weapon for a period of time, no questions asked.  Anyone in possession of such a weapon after the bounty period is breaking the law. 

This does not nullify the 2nd amendment, but it brings it more into alignment with today’s weapon technology which the founding fathers could have never imagined.  If the NRA doesn’t like it, let them own muskets, the weapon of choice when the amendment was enacted.

Our gun violence and lax gun laws are the worst of developed countries. Many other countries just ban gun ownership and their lack of gun violence verses ours reflect that and cultural values as well.

And, please, the false equivalency argument of they’ll use trucks instead, so why shouldn’t we ban trucks is specious (as those who make the argument know).  Any politician who can say that with a straight face ought to be run out of office. But as the Texas massacre takes place on the heels of the horrid truck terrorist attack in Manhattan, NRA apologists are quick to make that facetious case.

Trump responded to the Texas massacre saying “I think that mental health is your problem here. We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries. But this isn’t a guns situation.”  Yes, mental health problems need to be simultaneously addressed, but it IS a guns “situation” as well.  And why did he genuflect to the NRA, rescinding a regulation that makes it harder for people with mental illness histories to purchase guns?

Our “leaders” must offer more than condolences and prayers to the thousands and thousands of families who have been impacted by gun violence and those who will be victims in the future. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Two Unlikely Companion Pieces

I just read my first illustrated book, an idiosyncratic history of New York City, Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York by Julia Wertz.  The genre is “comics,” but the New York Times gave it such a glowing review, and since my love of NYC – where I grew up and lived as a young adult --- is so deep, I couldn’t resist owning this fetching coffee table book.  It’s easy to read and a candy feast for the eyes for an old New Yorker, although as a kid I grew up in Queens, but that still counts!

Obviously, it can’t be a comprehensive history.  Wertz takes bits and pieces of the city’s history – the ones that particularly appeal to her -- and weaves them together in a graphic time machine of sorts, frequently juxtaposing the “then” and “now” scenes.  Just a glance at the “Table of Contents” underscores the eclectic nature of the history:

She tends to focus on those aspects that are not touristy.  It reaches across generations.  She’s young enough to be my daughter or perhaps even granddaughter.  As she is not a New Yorker by birth, and no longer lives there, she sees the city in a way a native New Yorker might not, in the way that I do.  I took all those sites for granted and it makes more of an impression in retrospect than it did then.

I enjoyed her journey through parts of NYC I’ve known and other parts I did not know.  Also I appreciated her quirky selection of topics such as the origins and “formula” for the “egg cream” which took me back to my childhood at a local luncheonette in Richmond Hill, Queens, 107th Street and Jamaica Avenue, called Freers.

In fact, if there is one disappointment in the book, it is that she tends to give short shrift to Queens, as opposed to Brooklyn where she lived in Greenpoint during her NY years.  Missing are iconic scenes of my youth and I think of the confluence of Myrtle, Hillside, and Jamaica Avenues as ground zero where Jahn’s, the RKO Keiths, and the Triangle Hofbrau still live large in my memory!.  All gone now.

Those figured prominently in my teenage years whereas during grammar school days other beloved places were in South Richmond Hill, 107th St near Atlantic Avenue.  One of the first Carvel’s was there or some days we’d bike over to Jamaica, Queens where there was a Wonder Bread factory where workers would give us hot bread from their oven.  There was also a slaughter house not too far away and we’d peer through knotholes to see chickens dancing around without their heads before we were chased away.  Also on Atlantic was a park on 106th St. where we played stickball, punch ball, handball, any kind of game you could play with a Spaldeen.

Along Jamaica Avenue I remember the Gebhardts bakery off of 111th street whose crumb cake was divine.  Also there was a fish store around 112th where they also cooked greasy French fries and served them wrapped in newspaper.  We got our school supplies from Lipchitz or Woolworths.  Right near Lipchitz was the Richmond Hill Savings bank where my mother encouraged me to open an account to save my pennies, and I always felt I was entering a church when I went there with my junior savings account.

Overhead was the Jamaica Avenue El which on rare occasions was our escape into NYC, a great adventure as a kid, but I usually took it early Sat morning to go to the Van Wyck Lanes where I could bowl a few games for 15 cents each if I got there before 9.00 am with my own ball (I once bowled a 227). 

We’d play ball until dark, a round sewer top for home plate, or stoop ball, eat dinner and then wait for the ring of the Bungalow Bar Man, begging our parents for a 10 cent chocolate pop.  The games we played.  Anything to stay out of the house.  Steal the bacon, Ringolevio, yo-yo duels, card games like war, flipping baseball cards, dodge ball and the list goes on.

Forest Park was a draw, with a carousel and later in my teenage years, a walk along the railroad tracks with friends, putting pennies on the rail and then running back to see them after a freight train had passed.  The Park was also a great place to build a secret fort.  Or for sledding.  And for playing baseball at Victory Field.

On Halloween we would get apples, popcorn or crackerjacks, just take a handful, no need to worry back then that there would be a razor blade in the apple or the popcorn poisoned.  And on Thanksgiving our parents would blacken our faces with burnt cork, dressing us as bums, and we would go around the neighborhood asking "anything for Thanksgiving?"  I think we normally received a few pennies.  Into the bank account!

We got around on our Schwinn bikes, clothes-pinning playing cards to the wheel frames so the spokes would make a racket.  As teenagers we sought out older kids to cruise Queens Blvd (preferably in a 55’ Ford such as this one I saw recently at an antique car show – 

strange to be looking at “antiques” that were just part of my life) or hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach where we would work hard to get a tan, but usually left with a blistering sunburn (my Dermatologist now thanks me for my stupidity).  Also part of our teenage years was spent at the Hillside Rollerdrome Skating Rink on Metropolitan Avenue.

I could go on and on.  But I see I am digressing into reveries, none of which I could criticize our author, Julia Wertz, for not including in her “unconventional history.” It would have been nice though to include the institution that was Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor!  I’m also sorry she failed to carrry the Brooklyn Paramount in her illustrations of iconic NY theaters, which as you can see here is now one of the gymnasiums belonging to LIU. 

Her writing this history has naturally given rise to these memories and her work is a “must have” for an incurable (albeit former) New Yorker.  Plus there are a number of scenes which struck home in the book, but I’ll mention only a few.  The first is her illustration of Max’s Kansas City, a joint, restaurant, theatre which I used to go to with other colleagues on special occasions from the publishing company I worked for in the mid 1960s.  We always had to have one of their iconic Bloody Mary’s.  Sometimes they would have an experimental theater production on the second floor, the kind you’d see at CafĂ© La MaMa in the East Village. 

But the illustration that really hit home is coincidentally both on the cover and at the end of the book, a stroll down the Bowery.  I kept looking at it and said I know this illustration for some reason.  Well, when researching the history of my family photography business, Hagelstein Brothers, I found the building my great grandfather and great uncle bought in 1866 to begin a business which would survive 120 years in NYC.  That building was 142 Bowery and there it was in Wertz’s book as well as her selection for the cover.  Here’s her illustration and a picture of it today.  So, I found that sort of thrilling.

She’s also irreverent, and I don’t mean that in a nasty way, but very respectfully.  She’s downright funny, as this illustration of “subway etiquette” illustrates:

As well as her quip about “micro-living” this, as she points out, is a trumped up idea of justifying astronomical rental fees for small spaces: 

She can also be very philosophical as one illustration has her on one of her “long city walks” saying to a friend, “I’m, perpetually fantasizing about a time I never experienced, and imagining a life I’ll never live.”  I might know a little more about the former but we’re in the same boat regarding the latter.

Most of all, I am regretful that I didn’t take more careful notice of everything when I was roaming NYC, having lived in Queens, Brooklyn (Park Slope and Downtown), the East Village (only briefly with a friend), and then the upper West Side.  See this entry for fuller information on that.  And, not only regretful because of that, but my encroaching old age makes only an occasional return to the city possible now, never to live there again.

While I was reading and enjoying Wertz’s “comic” table top book, I was also engrossed in another work by a New Yorker, the great writer, particularly known for his professional writing on baseball, Roger Angell.  But he is so much more than a baseball writer, and I’m closer in age to him (he’s turning 98 and still writing!) than I am to Julia Wertz.  They actually have The New Yorker magazine in common, Wertz contributing cartoons and Angell a long, long established writer for them.

This Old Man: All in Pieces is a potpourri of memories, the consequences of what it means to be the last man standing, the losses, and homage to NYC.  I feel that I’m right behind him on the journey,  the realization that my much operated on body is moving into the category of “this old man” as well;  I feel it.

The title of the collection is derived from his essay which appeared in The New Yorker in 2013.  It is a must read and it gives one an appreciation of his writing talents, so effortless and natural. 

It includes “farewells, letters, and tributes” to those he has known , “our dead are almost beyond counting and we want to herd them along, pen them up somewhere in order to keep them straight.  I would like to think of mine as fellow voyagers…Here in my tenth decade, I can testify that the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news.”

His tribute, “Over the Wall “ to his late wife, Carol, written only months after her death starts with Carol doesn't know that President Obama won reelection last Tuesday, carrying Ohio and Pennsylvania and Colorado, and compiling more than three hundred electoral votes. She doesn't know anything about Hurricane Sandy. She doesn't know that the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, in a sweep over the Tigers. More important, perhaps, she doesn't know that her granddaughter Clara is really enjoying her first weeks of nursery school and is beginning to make progress with her slight speech impediment. Carol died early last April….

What the dead don't know piles up, though we don't notice it at first. They don't know how we're getting along without them, of course, dealing with the hours and days that now accrue so quickly, and, unless they divined this somehow in advance, they don't know that we don't want this inexorable onslaught of breakfasts and phone calls and going to the bank, all this stepping along, because we don't want anything extraneous to get in the way of what we feel about them or the ways we want to hold them in mind. But they're in a hurry, too, or so it seems. Because nothing is happening with them, they are flying away, over that wall, while we are still chained and handcuffed to the weather and the iPhone, to the hurricane and the election…..

There are scores of writers he worked with and befriended, one in particular, John Updike, who comes up again and again in these essays, bringing the writer to life with personal quips.  He also recognizes the genius of Updike’s writing:   
Updike's writing is light and springy, the tone unforced; often happiness is almost in view, despite age or disappointments. He is not mawkish or insistently gloomy. Death is frequently mentioned but for the time being is postponed. Time itself is bendable in these stories; the characters are aware of themselves at many stages. This is Updike country: intelligent and Eastern, mostly Protestant, more or less moneyed.

Angell relates an anecdote regarding how Updike accidentally got to see and write about Ted Williams’ final at bat of his career at Fenway Park, hitting a home run.  Updike was in the area to meet a woman at her place on Beacon Hill and was stood him up!  So he made his way to Fenway and was there to witness the consecrated moment and famously wrote about it in a piece for The New Yorker, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”  Here is the confluence of literature and baseball, a legend elevated into a literary masterpiece:

Fisher threw [a] third time, Williams swung again, and there it was. The ball climbed on a diagonal line into the vast volume of air over center field. From my angle, behind third base, the ball seemed less an object in flight than the tip of a towering, motionless construct, like the Eiffel Tower or the Tappan Zee Bridge. It was in the books while it was still in the sky. [Center fielder Jackie} Brandt ran back to the deepest corner of the outfield grass; the ball descended beyond his reach and struck in the crotch where the bullpen met the wall, bounced chunkily, and vanished. Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs-hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted "We want Ted" for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.

In accepting the J.G, Taylor Spink Award at the American Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, N.Y. Angell acknowledged his debt to baseball:

My gratitude always goes back to baseball itself, which turned out to be so familiar and so startling, so spacious and exacting, so easy-looking and so heart-breakingly difficult that it filled up my notebooks and seasons in a rush. A pastime indeed. Fans know about this too. Nowadays we have all sports available, every sport all day long, but we're hanging on to this game of outs, knowing how lucky we are.

Roger, I know what you mean!  In this crazy world baseball remains essentially unchanged except for the amusement park nature of many of today’s fields.  I liked it more in the days of no mascots, flashing scoreboards, fireworks, enclosed stadiums, constant “music.”  Let ‘em play ball!

Tying these two books together may be a stretch, but there is also Roger Angell the inveterate New Yorker.  In a letter to Tom Beller who was researching a book about J.D. Salinger, Angell imagines what Madison Avenue was like when he probably passed “Jerry” as he refers to J.D., both unaware of the other….

I'm pretty sure that Jerry Salinger would have walked toward Madison, not Lex, in search of that pack of cigarettes. He could have tried at the little Schmidt's Drugstore, two doors north of 91st Street on the NE corner of Park, but probably that was still a pure drugstore. It had one of the pharmacist's vases of mauve water hanging in the window…. Madison then was nothing like Madison now. The gentrification began in the 1980s, I believe. It was a businesslike avenue before that, and in Jerry's time, with two- way trolley tracks in the middle. All traffic was two-way. It had newsstands, a Gristede's (on the NE corner of 92nd); a liquor store or two; a plumber's store, with a bathtub in the window (mid 91st-92nd, on the east side of the avenue); a florist's (J. D. Flessas, on the SW corner of 91st); numerous drugstores (including Cantor's on NE or SE corner of Mad and 93rd, depending on which year we're talking about, and, maybe a bit earlier, a nearby Liggett's); plus shoeshine and shoe repair shops, hardware stores (probably Feldman's, even then), etc., etc. The Hotel Wales was already there, east side of the avenue between 92nd and 93rd, but much seedier then.

Lexington was much the same, also with trolleys-the trolley cars on the two lines were not identical in appearance-and with the same stores, maybe more groceries or butcher shops, but all of them cheaper and with a slightly less affluent clientele. More laundries; more of those basement ice, coal & wood places. Maybe some deli's but they weren't called deli's then. Lexington and I think 93rd had a Lucky Lindy coffee shop. But neither of the two avenues felt affluent; they were useful. Almost all the buildings along them were four-story brownstones. Madison, as you noted, was on the same geographical level as Park; Lex was downhill from Park. There was some construction going on in these blocks all through this time, depression or no depression.

Salinger and the younger me probably passed each other more than once on the street back then, all unknowing. We each knew that the wind was from the east on gray mornings when we woke up with the smell of hops in the air, blown from the huge Ruppert's Brewery, which lay east of Third and north from 90th Street.

Two entirely different generations, but dealing with life in the Big Apple, then and now.