Thursday, February 16, 2017

Trump’s Truman Show

Once upon a time one’s life meant having some time to oneself. Presidents were there but mostly in the background except during critical times. Now we are all exhausted from less than a month into the Trump presidency. Why? He is omnipresent; no matter where you look, to whom you speak, online, newspapers, or TV, big brother is there, “100%” as HE is fond of saying. Now we are subjected to the anxiety and ennui of Trump reporting 24-7.

I can’t help but think of the movie The Truman Show. Our existential hero of the film, Jim Carrey, is an orphan who has been raised by a corporation to live and be watched, without his knowledge, on a reality TV show 24-7 -- until he discovers this and tries to escape.  In this latter respect we’re in Carrey’s position, but this is an environment HE doesn’t want US to escape from.  As the Narcissist -in-Chief HE enjoys being watched in his own simulated reality TV show, a terrarium of which the contours are “alternative truths.”  Our role is to be spellbound.  Before I merely thought this behavior “crazy making” but it may be more --  preparation for almost anything, totalitarian rule by the Plutocracy, religious wars, the demolition of the Republic, a nuclear winter, or all rolled up into the Trumpocalypse (“the catastrophic destruction or damage of civilization following the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America.” -- from Urban Dictionary)

Instinctively, even if we survive we all know this will not end well.  I hope I am very wrong, and that the next four years will be bigly amazing, devoid of losers, with tremendous, terrific winners, but I fear it’s not gonna happen, zero percent.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Wistful Remembrances

Scrolling down my, now, all-too-ridiculously-lengthy  key word index to “Westport”  there is a score of entries, a testimony to the strong feelings I have towards where I worked and lived for some thirty years of my life, receding with the speed of light into the forgotten past.  The essence of this blog is a written record of remembering.  I speak not of major events, but the nuances of fleeting feelings.  I was reminded of this today by an entry from more than six years ago.  Although it is a review of Happy Days by Samuel Beckett, bravely produced by the Westport Country Playhouse, it evoked surreal feelings of place and time.  I quote the first and last paragraphs of that piece.  It could almost be read as a stand-alone (without the details of the theatre production) as it says as much about time, and wistful remembrances.
What a cynical title for Samuel Beckett’s brilliant play, courageously presented by the Westport Country Playhouse to celebrate its 80th anniversary. It is not the kind of light fare one might expect on a languid summer’s night at a country theatre far off Broadway, and it was a brave choice by the Theatre’s Artistic Director, Mark Lamos. But this is Westport, Ct - a bedroom community of NYC where we lived for so many years. In fact, we were there during the celebration of the Playhouse’s 40th anniversary – half of its lifetime ago -- so although we are now only summertime visitors, its byways are subliminally imprinted on us.

It was a night of powerful theatre. We exited to the parking lot. It had just rained and the humidity hung in the air, also rising off the steaming macadam and fogging our glasses. So we drove the back roads of Westport, returning to our boat, passing landmarks indelibly imprinted and always remembered such as the location of the old Westport National Bank (gone) turning left onto the only road that runs west and parallel to Riverside Avenue, along the southern side of the Saugatuck River, passing homes where we had partied in our youth (including one Christmas eve where guests in an alcoholic induced stupor set a couch on fire and it had to be dragged out to the snow to extinguish the flames), the building our first Internist once occupied (who later died in the same nursing home as Ann’s mother), the Westport Women’s Club where my publishing company held our annual Xmas party for so many years, my old office itself across the river where I worked for the first ten years in Westport, now the Westport Arts Center, past the street where Ann and I went for Lamaze classes when she was pregnant, over the old bridge crossing the Saugatuck, turning left then right under the Turnpike past the structure which used to be The Arrow Restaurant (long gone) where Ann reminded me they made her favorite dinner, crispy fried chicken, and then further west to Norwalk, all fragments of our own earth mound, being earth bound, trying to understand. Theatre to think about. Oh, happy days.
View of Westport, CT from my office circa 1972

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Collected Stories – Literary Lives Diverge at Dramaworks

Donald Margulies’ Collected Stories is a fascinating look into the creative process and the relationship between writers, compellingly brought to life by Dramaworks.  For more than two hours an intense emotional struggle unfolds between two women, one ascending and the other descending, leaving us to wonder who “owns” the stories of our life?

Paul Stancato’s PBD directorial debut is an auspicious endeavor, taking what is already an engaging play and transforming it into a mesmerizing evening.  He not only had the Dramaworks’ extraordinary technical team to assist his efforts, but the notable debut of the two fine actors who inhabited their roles, Anne-Marie Cusson as Ruth Steiner, the mature writer and teacher, and Keira Keeley her star struck, initially compliant student, Lisa Morrison.  From Stancato: “they taught me as much as I taught them.”  Cusson and Morrison are the consummate actors in this production, connecting with one another to the point of perfection.  Their bravura performances makes this the must see play in Palm Beach this season.
Paul Stancato

Although emotionally turbulent, there are many subtle comic moments, not only in some of the dialogue, but pauses where even facial expressions allow a twitter to ripple through the audience.  These are welcome interludes, carefully orchestrated by Stancato.

At the onset Lisa insinuates herself into Ruth’s well ordered life.  Ruth, an established writer, has published numerous short stories, collected as well as uncollected.  Lisa, arriving at Ruth’s apartment for her first out of the classroom session with her mentor, marvels “What I'm trying to tell you, Ms. Steiner, in my very clumsy stupid way... Being here?, studying with you ... ? It's like a religious experience for me. No, really, it is. I mean, your voice has been inside my head for so long, living in this secret place, having this secret dialogue with me for like years? I mean, ever since high school when I had to read The Business of Love ... ? I mean, from the opening lines of ‘Jerry, Darling,’ that was it for me, I was hooked, you had me. I knew what I wanted to do, I knew what I wanted to be.”

Keira Keeley, Anne-Marie Cusson; Photo by Alicia Donelan

Lisa speaks in the vernacular of innocence and youth, one of the many layers in this play, the process of Lisa’s maturing and Ruth’s aging.  This theme is as dominant as the teacher/student relationship and Margulies continuously weaves these leitmotifs.  As with any great short story itself, Margulies moves the plot along within a structure which is ripe for complication, confrontation, and in this case an intentionally ambiguous resolution which is sure to keep the audience talking long after they have left the theatre.

Teaching writing is the ultimate paradox.  As Ruth attempts to explain in her deprecating way that it really can’t be taught:  “Please. Never pay attention to what writers have to say. Particularly writers who teach. They don’t have the answers, none of us do.”  Cusson infuses this role with bravado, a self assuredness that comes from her many years of teaching experience and professional success.

Photo by Robert Hagelstein

The setting is Ruth’s Greenwich Village apartment.  Scenic designer K. April Soroko has faithfully imagined an apartment filled with the very publications, relics, and books that define her life, the view from her window which changes with the seasons, the sacred place of her writing desk, her selection of music and the prominent placement of Matisse's The Dance.

Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
This setting of a writer’s life combined with reminders of Ruth’s cultural heritage are well mined in Cusson’s performance and proves to be a source of Lisa’s jealously, something she can admit to at the point in the play when she is no longer the star struck student and is coming into her own as a writer.  Lisa complains to Ruth about her limited experience and one could look at this as a climatic part of the play from which the scales tip dramatically afterward:

LISA: You had all that rich, wonderful, Jewish stuff to draw on.
RUTH: Why was that luck? That was what I knew; I started out writing what I knew, just like you and everybody else who writes.
LISA: Yeah, but that culture!, that history! The first generation American experience and all that. Nothing in my experience could possibly approach that. What do I have? WASP culture. Which is no culture at all. 
RUTH: Oh, really? Tell that to Cheever and Updike.
LISA: Oh, God, I've got to write a novel, don't you think? Isn’t that what they want?
RUTH: Who?
LISA: Isn't that what they expect? The literary establishment. I mean, in order for me to be taken seriously?
RUTH: Why? I never did.

And there is the crux of it all.  All writers draw from experience in some way.  Short story writers aspire to the holy grail of novelist, something never achieved by Ruth.  The line between fiction and memoir can be hair-thin.  Philip Roth once said “I wouldn’t want to live with a novelist. Writers are highly voyeuristic and indiscreet.”  Ruth, as Lisa’s mentor and teacher, urges her to not censor herself:  “You can’t censor your creative impulses because of the danger of hurting someone’s feelings…If you have a story to tell, tell it.  Zero in on it and don’t flinch, just do it.”

Photo by Alicia Donelan
Early on in the play Lisa comes across a volume in Ruth’s collection by the poet Delmore Schwartz and a letter slips out by him addressed to Ruth.  She puts it back, embarrassed, as clearly this is something Ruth does not want to talk about.  Later when Ruth and Lisa have more of a mother/daughter relationship, Ruth unburdens the story of her liaison with Schwartz to Lisa, with pride and regret.  He of course was an older man; she the young (and she proudly exclaims, “pretty then”) student, dazzled by meeting Schwartz in a pub and becoming a companion afterwards…  “…the power was undeniable….What sheltered Jewish girl from Detroit, what self-styled poet, what virgin, would not have succumbed?”  Ruth’s story is mostly a long monologue and Cusson delivers it with such heart and vulnerability.  Keira Keeley’s Lisa listens with wide-eyed amazement, taking it all in.

The play moves to the next level.  Lisa has had a short story published. They are now colleagues.  Ruth, the teacher, had given Lisa a story of hers to critique.  Lisa recognizes one of the characters, Emily, as resembling herself.  In fact, this heartfelt moment in the play is almost a play within itself, the story line about a mother and a daughter without a clear resolution.  Ruth defends the latter to Lisa saying: “But that’s life, isn’t it? What relationship is ever truly resolved?  People, perfectly likable people, inexplicable, inconveniently, behave badly, or take a wrong turn…it happens.”  This conceit is not lost on the audience, foreshadowing their own relationship.  After hearing Lisa’s criticisms of the story, Ruth has a sad epiphany: “I’m jealous that you have all of life ahead of you.  I can’t sit back and watch you do the dance that I danced long ago and not think about time.  I can’t….That’s what it’s about.  Don’t you see?  Time.”
Photo by Alicia Donelan

One could see where this remarkable play is taking us. The last scene in the second act is explosive, raw, and Cusson and Keeley plumb the depths of their characters at the climatic denouement.  By then the scales have tipped the other way, Lisa appropriating the essence of the Delmore Schwartz story for her first novel, one she claims was written as a tribute to Ruth (was it or wasn’t it?, the audience must decide for itself), but a story Ruth feels was purloined from her (contradicting her earlier advice that Lisa must write whatever story without regard for hurting anyone).  Where does the moral compass point? Whose literary life is it anyway?

The costume design by award-winning Brian O'Keefe captures the passage of the six years beginning in the 1990s as well as the maturation of Lisa from girl student to published author in her stunning black outfit of the last scene.  As this is not a period piece and the passage of time allows for only subtle changes in dress, O'Keefe’s costumes appear to be designed more for the emotional moment.  

Time passage was clearly the focus of lighting designer Ron Burns, both the realism of the time of day and the surrealistic feeling of its passage over years.  The latter in particular was the fulcrum for sound designer Matt Corey, jazz interpretations of classics such as “Guess I’ll Hang my Tears Out to Dry” and “In a Sentimental Mood” playing as seasons roll by.   Music also distinguishes Ruth’s listening habits which reflect the jazz of the 50s and 60s while Lisa listens to the urban rock of the time.

Regret and loss permeate the play; loss of time, loss of friendship, loss of loves.  Yet there was real love between these two women.  Ruth transitions from self assured, in control, to friend, and ultimately to feeling utterly betrayed by Lisa, who in essence has now become her mortal enemy.  Margulies has created an extremely thought provoking, powerful story and the Dramaworks ensemble delivers it with high-intensity and top notch acting power.  The play and the performance are true to the epigraphs cited by Margulies in the printed edition of the play:

Influence is simply transference of personality, a nod of giving away what is most precious to one’s self, and its exercise produces a sense, and, it may be, a reality of loss.  Every disciple takes away something from the master.
-- Oscar Wilde

Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.
-- Delmore Schwartz
Photo by Robert Hagelstein