Saturday, December 3, 2016

TRU – A Poignant “Holiday Play” at Dramaworks

While he dishes the dirt with the audience, ‘Tru’ as Truman Capote was nicknamed as a youth, is inherently alone on stage.  Alone.  That’s the essential message from Jay Presson Allen's play, which takes place during one holiday season (circa 1975), a time when his expectation of joy is displaced by a sense of estrangement from many of his closest friends.  The play examines the place of the artist in society, drawn from the very words and works of Truman Capote.  Dramaworks’ lapidary craftsmanship and Ron Donohoe’s bravura performance make this a compelling production.

Capote is a flamboyant and proud homosexual, a person of acerbic wit with that lisp and unmistakable southern drawl, and that is part of the charm of this play.  But Tru is also an author’s author, as a sensitive boy drawn to writing, later launching a career predominately as a writer of short stories.  However, his two best remembered works are his novella of a writer coming of age in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (unlike the focus of the movie), and In Cold Blood, where he skillfully demonstrated his striking ability as a non-fiction journalist, written with the eye of a novelist. 

Rob Donohoe’s outstanding performance as an openly gay man is not an impersonation but a tribute.  Donohoe is a Dramaworks veteran, having played a wide range of parts.  Before Dramaworks’ Producing Artistic Director Bill Hayes finalized arrangements for producing Tru this season, he wanted a commitment from Donohoe to play the part.  That was a year ago and Donohoe has since immersed himself in Capote’s work and life story, going to a voice coach to capture the high, nasal, southern accent of Capote and then modulating it for the stage. 

Capote’s angst becomes palpable as we first see him unraveling the day before Christmas Eve.  Thanks to a recent publication in Esquire of a part of his unfinished novel Answered Prayers, in which he unflinchingly reveals unflattering portraits of his “friends”, the super wealthy, idle rich, he has now been summarily abandoned by them, and most depressingly by his high society women friends with whom he shares a gossipy codependence.  This is a very harsh blow.  But here Tru responds to his critics, ”Answered Prayers is the book I’ve been in training for my whole life…...I’ve written a lot of books, but basically I’ve always had this one book to justify..…everything.  What’s it about?  Answered Prayers is about them.  The Super Rich.  As seen through the eyes of an outsider who for various reasons has privileged access.  Hehehe.  It’s about sexual license and ethical squalor.”

The artist’s relationship to the wealthy is frequently a symbiotic one, the artist needing financial support while the uber rich need something to fill their relatively empty lives.  Tru feels this deeply, saying, “Money, money, money!  They’re very nervous with you if you think you don’t have any.  That’s why they hang together so desperately.  It’s not that they like each other…they don’t.  A yacht and five houses are what they have in common.  And they get very bored with each other.  So when they can, they try to take in amusing artists.” 

So it is with some bewilderment that Tru is facing the holidays, wondering what in the world did they think he was doing with them, other than entertaining them; after all he is a writer and to him Answered Prayers is the culmination of his life’s work.  And as we learn, he has known EVEYONE in society.  If they’ve ever been to Studio 54 they were under his scrutiny.  He proudly states:  “I am an artist.  Artists belong to no class.  And people like that who cozy up to artists do so at their own risk.” Nonetheless, this work becomes a path to self destruction, lubricated by alcohol and pills.
Conflicting Christmas emotions set the tone for the entire production.  On the one hand he has fond Christmas memories, particularly of “Sook” who was his mother’s oldest sister, a person some people considered retarded, and thus people thought her “funny.” “Sookie and I were like forgotten people.  Sook by her brothers and sisters and me by my parents.”  These two misfits were close, particularly around the holidays, when they made fruit cakes together.  His book Christmas Memory provides some of the narrative about their distinctive relationship.  Nonetheless, Capote confesses -- and this is the essential sadness of this “Christmas play” -- “I’m very ambivalent about Christmas.  I want it to be magic – warm and lavish with all your friends like a family.  Which sets up terrible anxiety because I don’t have a very good history with Christmases.  And that’s true with alcoholics, you know.”

Yet, in spite of the bravado, the cutting wit, and drunken cynicism, there is vulnerability about Rob Donohoe’s performance, one we all have about our lives, whether we are “liked,” and essentially the meaning of our existence, and the choices we have made, which brings Capote to this moment in time.  For much of Capote’s life he was a pop culture figure, ”famous for being famous,” but Rob Donohoe delves into that other place where the artist and the true human being reside.  Although there is a sense of sadness and resignation it is not all gloom and doom as the play provides for plenty of laughs, such as when Tru receives “a veritable horse trough of unspeakable poinsettias..…[which] are the Bob Goulet of Botany.”

One person plays are not everyone’s cup of tea, yet in many ways they are harder to produce than conventional plays and therefore more challenging to the small team of actor, director, and technical staff.  Tru is skillfully directed by Lynnette Barkley, her third directorial stint at Dramaworks, and working closely with Paul Black, the scenic and lighting designer, they created other “characters” using the set --the bar, the Christmas tree, and the piano, points which relate to Capote’s life and help create movement and modulate the mood as Tru moves from his highs to lows. 

The set is gloriously breathtaking, capturing a sense of Capote’s UN Plaza apartment, with its books, framed black and white photos on the wall of Capote and friends, ubiquitous parquet floors and view of NYC.  You are a visitor in Capote’s home and get to know the man and all the different layers of his life through his interaction with his environment.  This is the magic of a one person play: you are in a one to one relationship with the character.  This person is talking to you, even breaking the fourth wall at times, which can’t help but create a special sense of intimacy.

Costume design is by Brian O'Keefe, and although only one person is on stage, he needed clothes that would enable him to perform the part believably, not to mention making him look shorter and heavier than Donohoe is himself.  Sound design by Brad Pawlak captures voice overs from the answering machine, from Tru’s memory, and an interesting musical selection Allen’s play requires, concluding with the haunting lyrics of “Little Drummer Boy”.

I played my drum for Him pa rum pum pum pum.
I played my best for Him Pa rum pum pum pum
Then He smiled at me pa rum pum pum pum;
Me and my drum.

Tru is a little gem of a theatre piece.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Sport and a Pastime; A James Salter Masterpiece

Salter chisels precise sentences, ones Hemingway himself would envy.  And there are flashes of Fitzgerald as well, colorful and lyrical.  It’s long been said that Salter is a writer’s writer and in A Sport and a Pastime (“Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime…” from The Koran) he spins the tale of three people, one the narrator, and then the story of the 24 year old Philip Dean and his young lover, an 18 year old French shop girl, Anne-Marie.  We follow their pleasures of eating, abandoned sex, motoring about the French countryside, from hotel to hotel and restaurant to restaurant, all related through the imagination and recollection of our voyeur narrator.  Sexually, every major position from the Kama Sutra is explicitly explored and yet the novel is not pornographic, Salter weaving eroticism into his panoply of French provincial images and the strange relationship of the narrator to the two main characters.

The narrator warns the reader that his tale is as much fabricated as it is real.  What is real and imagined is left to the reader.  We know little about the unnamed narrator who is staying at his friends’ country home in Autun, France (the Wheatlands, who live in Paris) as he has done many times before.  It is here that he befriends Dean.  He is fond of the French countryside and he imagines a love interest in a woman there, Claude, who he only glimpses from afar.  He fantasizes about her and here is the genius of Salter who skillfully foreshadows the narrator’s interest in Dean and Anne-Marie.  Salter’s writing is exquisite:

I have discarded my identity. I am still at large, free of my old self until the first encounters, and now I imagine, very clearly, meeting Claude Picquet. For a moment I have the sure premonition I am about to, that I am really going to see her at the next corner and, made confident by the cognacs, begin quite naturally to talk. We walk along together. I watch her closely as she speaks. I can tell she is interested in me, I am circling her like a shark. Suddenly I realize: it will be her. Yes, I'm sure of it. I'm going to meet her. Of course, I'm a little drunk, a little reckless, and in an amiable condition that lets me see myself destined as her lover, cutting into her life with perfect ease. I've noticed you passing in the street many times, I tell her. Yes? She pretends that surprises her. Do you know the Wheatlands, I ask. The Wheatlands? Monsieur and Madame Wheatland, I say. Ah, oui. Well, I tell her, I'm staying in their house. What comes next? I don't know-it will be easy once I am actually talking to her. I want her to come and see it, of course. I want to hear the door close behind her. She stands over by the window. She's not afraid to turn her back to me, to let me move close. I am going to just touch her lightly on the arm … Claude … She looks at me and smiles.

Ultimately, his inner life becomes consumed by his thoughts and observations of Dean and Anne-Marie, Salter making the point that memory is not a photograph but a construct:

Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future. But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change. In fact, there is the danger that if I continue to try, the whole concert of events will begin to fall apart in my hands like old newspaper, I can't bear to think of that. The myriad past, it enters us and disappears. Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed. Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design.

The narrator is awed by Dean, knowing he can never experience his ease in matters of love and profligacy:

I am only the servant of life. He is an inhabitant. And above all, I cannot confront him. I cannot even imagine such a thing. The reason is simple: I am afraid of him, of all men who are successful in love. That is the source of his power.

This is eerily similar in its conceit to Salter’s last novel, All that Is. Its main character, Bowman, tries to imagine the sexual life of a person he once admired, Kimmel, and goes on to try to recreate that life for himself. 

Dean subsists on money from his father.  He is a Yale drop out.  He knows that it will end but meanwhile this intense relationship with Ann-Marie blocks out all light about choices and planning for the future.  Dean is a blind man to it all.  Is it no wonder our narrator ruminates:

Now, at twenty-four, he has come to the time of choice. I know quite well how all that is. And then, I read his letters. His father writes to him in the most beautiful, educated hand, the born hand of a copyist. Admonitions to confront life, to think a little more seriously about this or that. I could have laughed. Words that meant nothing to him. He has already set out on a dazzling voyage which is more like an illness, becoming ever more distant, more legendary. His life will be filled with those daring impulses which cause him to disappear and next be heard of in Dublin, in Veracruz… I am not telling the truth about Dean, I am inventing him. I am creating him out of my own inadequacies, you must always remember that.

After a while, the second phase begins: the time of few choices. Uncertainties, strange fears of the past. Finally, of course, comes the third phase, the closing, and one must begin shutting out the world as if by panels because the strength to consider everything in all its shattering diversity is gone and the shape of life-but he will be in a poet's grave by then-finally appears, like a drop about to fall.

Dean doesn't quite understand this yet. It doesn't mean anything in particular to him. He is, after all, not discontented. Her breasts are hard. Her cunt is sopping. He fucks her gracefully, impelled by pure joy. He arches up to see her and to look at his prick plunging in, his balls tight beneath it. Mythology has accepted him, images he cannot really believe in, images brief as dreams. The sweat rolls down his arms. He tumbles into the damp leaves of love, he rises clean as air. There is nothing about her he does not adore. When they are finished, she lies quiet and limp, exhausted by it all. She has become entirely his, and they lie like drunkards, their bare limbs crossed. In the cold distance the bells begin, filling the darkness, clear as psalms.

We all know how this must end, much like Dean’s rare sports car, a Delage, one he abandons, which immediately atrophies with Dean’s departure.  I think of Dean as a Gatsby and the narrator as his Nick Carraway.  Perhaps this is intended all along by Salter, his hat tip to Fitzgerald…

We are all at his mercy. We are subject to his friendship, his love. It is the principles of his world to which we respond, which we seek to find in ourselves. It is his power which I cannot even identify, which is flickering, sometimes present and sometimes not – without it he is empty, a body without breath, as ordinary as my own reflection in the mirror – it is this power which guarantees his existence, even afterwards, even when he is gone.

Although Salter wrote six novels as well as a number of screenplays, A Sport and a Pastime, Light Years, and All that Is are probably his finest.  All that Is was published only two years before his death at the age of 90. His first novel, which I have on my shelf to read is considered a masterpiece of war-time aviation fiction, The Hunters published in 1956 (Salter was a West Point graduate and a jet pilot during the Korean conflict, a remarkable background for a writer of his stature).  That is a span of 57 years during which he wrote his few novels.  His output was not great, but his writing is.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

William Trevor, a Writer for the Ages

William Trevor has died at the age of 88. I came to William Trevor’s masterful short stories late in life as American fiction has been my literary bailiwick.  Trevor was an Irishman who lived mostly in England as an adult.  My loss not having followed him all that time, but I made up for it reading his two massive collections of short stories. I was astounded by his genius.  In his passing, I feel as if a close friend has died, intimately knowing him by his love of, and his sadness for, his characters.  Nonetheless, he was but an observer… By the end, you should be inside your character, actually operating from within somebody else, and knowing him pretty well, as that person knows himself or herself. You're sort of a predator, an invader of people.

The Guardian obituary says it all about his life and fiction, justifiably declaring he was “one of the greatest short story writers of the last century.”  He also wrote 20 novels, an incredible output for a writer who mostly flew under the literary world’s radar screen, which suited him just fine. As a writer one doesn’t belong anywhere. Fiction writers, I think, are even more outside the pale, necessarily on the edge of society. Because society and people are our meat, one really doesn’t belong in the midst of society. The great challenge in writing is always to find the universal in the local, the parochial. And to do that, one needs distance.

While in my entries on Trevor I mentioned a few of his short stories, to describe them in detail is to retell his tales, so I tried to simply sum them up as follows:

“Here are widows and widowers, miscreants and innocents, the travails of the elderly juxtaposed to the innocence of youth, the dilemmas of the middle aged and the divorced, so often lonely people trying to connect with someone who is inappropriate, and people from all economic stations of life. His characters are victims of their own actions, sometimes ‘imagining’ (the number of times Trevor says, ‘he [or] she imagined’ is countless) different outcomes and different realities.  There is a Pinteresque quality to many of the stories, showing humanity, some humor, and a hint of the absurd.

We identify with his characters, perhaps their taking the wrong fork in the road as we might be prone to do, and the consequences of their actions.  He spotlights that inherent loneliness we sometimes feel at social gatherings, or in our everyday relationships.  The mistakes of our lives add up but so do our little victories, our justifications of our actions making things seem alright.” 

With the passing of Trevor, along with Updike and Cheever, our best short story writers have been silenced, but their literature lives.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Blackened, Blue, Bewildered

Finally, I can sit at my keyboard with minimal pain from surgery.  Also, my head is clearer than when I wrote my last entry.

This is a two subject piece but they are related as I’ve come out of surgery pretty beaten up, dark, angry purple bruises on both legs and staples holding the pacemaker “wound” together on my chest, with limited range of my right arm, essentially a metaphor for how I feel about the election.

We all now know that if it were not for the arcane Electoral College method of electing the president, Clinton was the clear winner.  So Trump was right in saying beforehand (haven’t heard it after the election from him, wonder why?) that the system is rigged.  Can you imagine if the results were exactly opposite, Trump winning the popular but losing the EC?  Instead of the relatively peaceful protests we’ve seen spontaneously erupting around the country, we’d have Trump’s heavily armed militia in the streets.  Revolution and bloodshed.  So, in a way, for the safety of our citizens at least short term, this outcome has that one benefit.

Long term, it’s a different deal.  There are so many issues where an unrestrained Trump presidency can wreck the future of this country and the world, that it would be senseless to detail them all here. 

First, though, as much as I thought Trump’s candidacy was a joke during the initial months of the primaries, I took it quite seriously later, my fear growing in direct relation to his Teflon ability to say anything and, what used to matter, our 4th estate -- the Press -- having little effect to act as a foil.  If I was in a prolonged coma and came out of it to hear a presidential candidate talk about shooting someone on 5th Ave. with no consequences, grabbing women by their pussies, etc., I would have thought the Press would have been able to eviscerate that candidate long ago.

But cyber bullying was the factor in this campaign which made it unique.  Facebook and Twitter had more to do with the outcome of this election than all the newspapers and TV news media combined. Trump’s attention span is ideally suited to 140 character tweets and his reality TV personality gave him entrĂ©e to TV coverage whenever he wanted it, gratis.  And in spite of his racist overtone, he did carry a persuasive populist message, the forgotten plight of the white middle class male.  Whether he can make good on promises to that minority group is highly unlikely, especially with his tax cut proposals which will benefit his own economic class most.  (I don’t believe in trickle down prosperity. The “wealth effect” is to make the wealthy wealthier.)

So based mostly on anecdotal evidence, I thought Trump had a better chance than the polls reflected.  I grew up only a couple of miles from his neighborhood in Queens, NY and we’re almost the same age.  Although more than 50 years have passed since I’ve lived there, if I close my eyes when Trump speaks I hear street talk I’m familiar with.  Between his celebrity status and his strong appeal to the middle class, people were willing to overlook the big picture and especially loved the way he took down the ruling oligarchy (including the now vestigial Press and traditional mass media).  And given the unpredictability of what people do in the privacy of the voting booth (perhaps ashamed to be backing Trump publicly, but will pull the lever for him privately), I went into surgery thinking that this election was a tossup, especially with the FBI making unprecedented statements to Congress and Wiki Leak’s one sided email revelations, so ripe for Trump’s conspiracy campaign (imagine if the RNC’s emails were similarly exposed). 

Thus, nothing about election night truly surprised me.  In fact I called the outcome at 9.20 PM, turned off the TV and went to bed with the residual effects of anesthesia still in my system.  I woke up in pain throughout the night but refused to look at the TV or phone to confirm “my call.”  The next morning my heart sank, in spite of being prepared for the outcome.

So here’s the existential dilemma: how does one, as a citizen of a country he/she loves, support its new leader, while having complete disdain for that leader, his policies, his narcissistic disorders, and fearing the damage he and his administration might do?

While I could go into a long litany of all the specific issues, I’m trying to look at this from 50,000 feet so they don’t overwhelm. To me, I see a world undergoing turbulent change, hastened by a technology revolution.   The industry I came from – publishing --is just one example of the incredible forces of creative destruction that technology has fostered.  More books are being published (including e-books) using far less labor than in the past.  The majority of book titles are now printed on demand.  Warehouses are not needed for those and the process is completely automated.  The whole landscape has changed.  Robots now make the majority of heavy industry products.  This trend is only accelerating.  Capital finds the most efficient venues for its deployment.

Anyone who believes that Trump can simply bring back manufacturing jobs like we once had is self-deluded, abetted by the master manipulator himself, Donald Trump, who told the victims of disintermediation what they wanted to hear…….that things would return to the way they were. 

I do believe there is a path to expanding jobs and prosperity for the forgotten middle class, but it means abandoning the past and embracing the future.  America’s export is intellectual capital and technology.  Our educational system needs to reflect those realities and build our industries with those as a foundation.  Let the manufacturing of goods that require handwork reside in low cost labor countries, such as those which made Trump’s hats.

Going further up from a 50,000 foot overview you see a planet whose delicate atmosphere which protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet light and governs the balance of glaciers, oceans, and climate – all under siege.  Can we afford to aid climate denial forces in our society, simply because it is the easy, short term answer to some of our economic ills?  Here again is both a threat and an opportunity, an opportunity to develop the alternative energy and mass transportation industries, a win-win situation, jobs and a healthier environment for future generations.  America has to lead other countries in this effort. 

We seem to be at a Malthusian tipping point in the history of the world.  Population is growing exponentially but while Malthus was concerned about the food supply keeping pace, little could he foresee the other factor, now a bigger part of the equation of whether humanity can survive changes to the environment itself because of our addiction to fossil fuels.  

So these are just some of the big picture things I’m concerned about.  I want to support my President but I fear that progressives will have to fight tooth and nail, hoping the country can hang on for four years.

If I’m around then, it will because of incredible medical technology, the kind that allowed me to survive my fourth pacemaker implantation with the removal of existing leads being the most dangerous part of the operation.  New leads then had to be implanted, these being MRI compliant which my old leads were not.  As I age, an MRI is inevitable.  First they had to connect me to a temporary pacemaker as I am 100% dependent on the ventricle pacing by threading leads through each of my legs and then to a temporary pacemaker during the operation. Then they opened my chest to remove the existing pacemaker and begin the long arduous task of removing the existing leads, an operation of great delicacy to not injure the heart.  Unfortunately, a small part of the lead in the atrium broke off and the surgeon felt it was just too dangerous to go after that last piece and thus I lost the MRI compliant feature.  Overall the operation went well and now I’m trying to rest and rehabilitate,

I’m grateful to family and friends who expressed so much care and particularly to my wife, Ann, who stayed with me in the hospital room, sleeping on an uncomfortable cot, and watched over things for me, shaving my chest, stomach and legs and helping me take the first of two antiseptic showers before the operation.   I can’t say enough positive things about the nurses at the University of Miami Hospital.  To me they are as important as the surgeon, maybe more so.

Thus, I am slowly getting back to form, but to a political landscape that has been shaped by fear and intolerance.  I have low expectations that Mr. Trump can suddenly function as the leader we all need to help us coalesce as a nation.  His narcissistic personality must be fed and that is going to be a constant obstruction to doing the right thing, such as selecting Cabinet members who are NOT just yes people or those connected to his business interests or family.  Can one imagine Sarah Palin, a climate change denier as Secretary of the Interior as rumored?  He’s already appointed a denier, Myron Ebell, as the head of the EPA transition team.   

My good friend, Artie, reminded me of H.L. Mencken’s prophetic quote from nearly 100 years ago:  “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people.  On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete moron.  Perhaps that time has come.

Nonetheless I’m desperately trying to end this with something positive:  Trump is now going to become OUR President and I for one will try to give his administration a chance to do some of the right things for the nation as a whole.

After I wrote the preceding though, I read David Remnick’s incredible article from the November 9 issue of The New Yorker, “An American Tragedy,” perhaps the most important of the many I’ve read.  Highly commended.