Picture it: New York City. Saturday, 9:30 a.m.. Me to Tucc & SarahB: Wanna see War Paint tonight? Tucc & SarahB: Sure why not.
Many biers/miles/hours later, in unison: OMIGOD WAR PAINT IS THE BEST.
I won't blow smoke up ur ass & claim it's literally the greatest show there ever was (i.e., IT IS NOT) but come on, man. These epic, extraordinary, stage-eating broads? I'll never doubt again.
It was nice that I could sigh and cry in unison with the bow-tied gentleman sitting beside me. I think we both felt the experience belonged to us individually (i.e., you can't possibly love Sondheim as much as I love Sondheim) yet needed to be shared with a sympathetic, like-minded stranger (i.e., there is no such competition). My Sondheim is as specific to me as his was to him and as yours is to you (if in fact you have a Sondheim?): they are one and the same person but we define that person by the singular meaning his work has for us. I have weighted mine down with the sum total of all my sense memories over decades and years and hours and dollars and tickets and miles, and he belongs to me alone. I couldn't share him with another soul if I wanted to.
Sunday in the Park with George is one of my top 3 favorite Sondheim shows but I did not care for the last Broadway revival, which seemed cold and pinched and brown, somehow. I was sad for all the wrong reasons. This is not a show that needs help being "serious": it needs flesh and blood and heat. Here we get all three from the scruffy puppy dog central presence of Jake Gyllenhaal (sorry, but it's in that beard, it's in those eyes), whose dreamy, far-off nature feels more innate than calculated: what he wants he cannot say; what he feels, he cannot give. It goes onto paper, it goes into canvas. Dot (Dot! DOT!) can only wait so long, and Annaleigh Ashford is everything too much all at once: too smart, too needy, too passionate, too pragmatic. She's delightful. She's also the second actress I've seen in the role who I preferred as Marie in the second act (the first would be Audra McDonald): that song "Children and Art" has become precious to me, and when she's being wheeled off the stage at the end of it, and she turns one last time and says "Goodbye, Mama" as she waves up at the painting, well... both my seatmate and I nearly collapsed into the aisle.
From the minimal staging to the overeager Celestes and the perfect pitch and glorious sway of the onstage orchestra, the whole thing felt loose and comfortable—maybe the fact that it's not competing for Tonys released them having to make it feel "Important." It's Sunday in the Park with George! It already is important! But how much better when it's filled with light and just allowed to sing.
Perhaps you're tired of hearing about Harriet Walter? That's okay, I'm tired of hearing about Tom Brady and Roger Federer and every sports team that has ever lived. Not that I begrudge human beings for loving sports or sports figures or balls of any kind (hey there, fella) but come on. Try counting the number of team logos you see the next time you walk down the street or hang out at the mall. If you come up with fewer than five I will pay you a million billion unicorn dollars and a thousand magic beans. My point is, the day people stop talking about Michael Jordan is the day I'll stop talking about Harriet Walter. Obviously neither of those things will ever happen, but somehow we'll all survive. Somehow life will go on.
Anyway, here are some pictures from an interview and book signing last night at the Drama Book Shop, starring Harriet Walter (ironically not pictured), who recently penned this tome about her long and varied Shakespeare career, which thanks to her collaboration with director Phyllida Lloyd now includes multiple male characters. Brava/o! Contrary to popular belief, Harriet Walter does not come to town all that often, so it's important to celebrate these events. "Americans are so effusive!" was her response to me shouting "Harriet Walter, we love it when you come to town!" across the signing table, and she was suitably impressed by the array of nonsensical nicknames we asked her to inscribe. She probably thought we were idiots. I cannot say she would be wrong.
At the end of the interview she read the book's epilogue, which is a "Dear Will" letter asking William Shakespeare to come back from the grave and correct his ladies. On getting the chance to finally be cast as the dudes (in Julius Caesar, Henry IV, and The Tempest), she writes: "My function in the story is no longer constrained by my gender, and I am freed up to play out the general political and moral dilemmas that concern us all." And later, vis-à-vis her frustration over the limited scope of the female roles, "Our stories matter not because of our relation to men but because we are members of the human race."
But my favorite line was from the interview itself, when asked why she's never played Gertrude in Hamlet: "It's the most famous play in the world and it has two shitty roles for women!"
The one thing I know is this world needs more Harriet Walter in it.
The End (for now).
The terribly titled but profoundly rewarding Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened is a study of anticipation and disappointment, youth and aging, triumph and loss. A documentary detailing the original Broadway production of Merrily We Roll Along, a notoriously troubled—and now much beloved—musical written by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth and directed by Hal Prince, it moves from conception to casting to rehearsals to previews to opening night and then closing night...after only 16 performances. In the course of months, lives were changed. Careers were shaken and thrown off track just as they were starting. Hopes died, partnerships ended. ET CETERA. That’s show business.
Director Lonny Price (who won the role of Charley Kringas at the ripe old age of 22) laces the film with behind-the-scenes footage and recent interviews with many of the principals (Furth died in 2008). We see the actors 35 years ago as children, some of them, on Broadway for the first time, and now in middle age, still touched by the luck of the lightning that struck them and then, in most cases, moved on—the primary exception being, obviously, Jason Alexander. They gather at the end on the same stage where the show ran (now the Neil Simon, then the Alvin), and wonder what might have been.
We see the show’s creators, veritable theater gods at the height of their power and fame, who had a long way to fall before rising again. (It's okay: there was Sunday in the Park with George for one and POTO for the other, and many more, although they never collaborated together again.)
And ultimately what we see is that everybody dreams and everybody fails—even our heroes, as one actress remarks of Sondheim and Prince. We reach and we stumble and then we stand up once more. What else is there to do? There are no perfect endings, even in art, but the joy born here lives on and on.
I saw the play A Life today, written by this fellow Adam Bock (who also wrote A Small Fire, which remains one of my maximal theatergoing experiences), and it ended in the middle of a sentence, with the words “Oh, and—.” Just "Oh, and—” the stage went black and the lights came up and everybody clapped. I brushed away a tear (9 times out of 10 I cry at the theater) and thought of my good buddy and coworker Kelly, who is no fan of ambiguous endings. Kelly would have been furious and would have said something like “If I’m paying for it, you owe me a whole story. Don’t expect me to make up the ending.” She thinks it’s lazy and, I guess, a cop-out. (She’s also anti-Mad Libs, btw, which I know because I asked.)
Hers is a valid opinion and all and she’s welcome to it, but I love making up the ending. A little ambiguity is good for the heart and the brain, I think. I love hanging my own peg on “Oh, and—” and having it reverberate as I bounce down the stairs and out into the sunlight and noise and mayhem of 42nd Street. You need something to distract you when you’re walking down 42nd Street. Otherwise you will murder someone, eventually.
The trick is that the character in A Life, played by David Hyde Pierce, is actually dead as he speaks this line, which I suppose is technically A SPOILER. He dies in the middle of the play and we see a friend find his body and we see the medical examiners show up and cart him off and we see him being prepped at the morgue and we see eulogies at his gravesite. We see life go on. The mourners leave and he walks back onstage and tells us what it’s like to be lowered into the ground, to be covered with the earth and to hear the birds, and it’s clear that he’s different from the person we saw earlier, that he’s learned something. “Oh, and—”
Oh, and nobody gets to fully tell their story. That’s what a life means.
Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber did a TimesTalks tonight [insert hyperlink here] to promote the soon-to-open Dangerous Liaisons [insert French title here] on Broadway. Harriet Walter did not appear, although it's possible she was hiding in the rafters [there were no rafters].
Janet McTeer on being told as a young actress that she'd have trouble getting parts because she's tall: "Make the fucking stage bigger!" [She's pretty tall.]
Liev Schreiber on what it's like to work with Janet McTeer: "Any road Janet takes me down is going to be better than the one I was on." [Liev Schreiber: also tall.]
Anyway: drama, costumes, wigs, looks smokin' hot. Attend, attend!
I want very much to get a cool new tattoo, something meaningful and indicative of my current state of mind, but I can't for the life of me figure out how to fit this whole speech from Arcadia on my arm:
Thomasina: Oh Septimus!—can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides—thousands of poems—Aristotle’s own library brought to Egypt by the noodle's ancestors! How can we sleep for grief?
Septimus: By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book, which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again. You do not suppose, my lady, that if all of Archimedes had been hiding in the great library of Alexandria, we would be at a loss for a corkscrew?
— Tom Stoppard, Arcadia
I guess I could boil it all down to the corkscrew.
The Dame Harriet Walter Society has been observing Dame Harriet Walter Weekends for almost six years now, since before Harriet Walter was even a dame, but for this one:
- We dragged our carcases out to St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn for the all-female women-in-prison Donmar production of Henry IV starring—you guessed it—Dame Harriet Walter;
- Arrived 30 minutes late for the matinee thanks to a scheduling snafu and the goddamn motherfucking MTA, which led to
- Being seated in stealth fashion in a completely different section than the one we were originally ticketed for, which meant that
- We were sitting "literally" (literally) at Dame Harriet Walter's feet when she emerged from the backstage scaffolding to give her big "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown" speech.
- It was very exciting!
- We had to crane our necks up and back in order to see her, although I couldn't hear a word she was saying because I was too aware that this was Dame Harriet Walter spouting Shakespeare while standing close enough for you (me) to grab the hem of her dingy sad old man's bathrobe, and during the course of this speech she spit not once but multiple times on SarahB, which in the end is exactly the sort of visceral, once-in-a-lifetime event that live theatre is all about if you're a particular kind of fan (spoiler: we are particular kinds of fans. I hope this is not news to you.).
- p.s. at one point Dame Harriet Walter played the flute. In high school I played the flute. This means nothing in the context of anything but it was also very exciting.
- Post-game we repaired to the wilds of DUMBO (ugh) for happy hour and candlelight pasta at AlMar (topnotch! delicioso! mangia mangia),
- Followed by ice cream, Cheetos, and a late-night viewing of—obviously—Have His Carcase; i.e., the one with all the tweed, short pants, quarrels, and Haviland Martin the murthering pony.
- This morning we woke up early to watch Gaudy Night and plot our next DHWW-related adventures, both international and domestic.
To paraphrase Ann Patchett in Bel Canto, certainly I know that Dame Harriet Walter isn't for everyone, but for everyone I hope there is something.
There was a line late in the second act of Dear Elizabeth, where Elizabeth Bishop, played by Cherry Jones, writes in a letter to Robert Lowell, by way of expressing concern over his recent health troubles, that she is praying for him: “Praying,” she then explains, “meaning ‘the intensity of hoping.’ ”
Well. WELL. I printed that line on the inside of my eyelids, pressed it with one finger into the palm of my left hand, sketched it over and over in my head while I tried to keep up with the play. When the curtain fell (there was no curtain), I pulled my ratty wrinkled notebook out of my bag to scribble it down on paper, and I still may not have it right. It’s close, though. The intensity of hoping.
The Women’s Project Theater is in residence at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre on Broadway at 76th Street. It’s a wee, comfortable space on the fourth floor of a nondescript building whose first floor looks mostly abandoned. There were signs outside but still, I was confused. The box office inside was boarded up. Could this be right? Ever the lemming, I followed a couple of Upper West Side Types onto an elevator—Upper West Side Types being sure of their instincts and secure in their place in the world—along with David Aaron Baker, who played Robert Lowell. There’s something magical in this, something so deliciously small-world and New York-y about an actor strolling in off the street and taking the lift right up to the theater along with the audience. (When SarahB and I saw Flyovers at a similar spot on a similar street a couple of years ago, we squeezed past Richard Kind and Michele Pawk on our way out the door approximately ninety seconds after watching them take their bows.)
This play, though: Dear Elizabeth, created by Sarah Ruhl and drawn from decades of correspondence between Bishop and Lowell—nothing but two actors sitting at desks placed side by side, a small gulf between them as they read aloud their own letters and poems to each other, meeting occasionally at retreats or conferences or vacation homes, shaking hands, hugging, dancing, as their words fly back and forth. It isn’t a sweet story, there’s alcoholism and madness, divorce and suicide, professional jealousies and personal slights. Long absences, death. But it’s the portrait of a friendship as the best possible love, the most abiding romance. At the end, an unseen stage manager offers a spoken coda while the actors stand silently together, leaning against one desk and holding hands—each poet cherishing the simple fact that the other exists in the world—as a cascade of hundreds of letters falls gently onto the stage from above. And then there was me, poor me, crying all the way home.