A Small Fire @ Playwrights Horizons

I loved this play out of all proportion. I can't even tell you whether or not it's any good, I loved it that much. In the same way that I love the Shack Burger and street corner hot dogs and a $7.99 bottle of Il Bastardo, I can't be objective or critical about some things, so sue me, I'm just a girl. (tee hee! GLITTER)

Michele Pawk is Emily Bridges, a hard-ass contractor with a milquetoast husband named John, played by Reed Birney, and a daughter, Jenny (Celia Keenan-Bolger), whose impending marriage she disapproves of, loudly and often. Emily's the kind of woman who you can tell is mentally tapping her foot while you're talking, and the only person she can tolerate with any patience is her foreman, Billy, played by Victor Williams. Feelings, empathy, vulnerability are not where she's at, cosmically speaking. She argues with her foreman and her husband and bitches about her daughter's fiancé and when she starts to lose her physical senses, down at the low-impact range of things, you think, oh, it's a little farce about a woman who can't smell stuff! That's cute. She'll probably learn a Valuable Lesson. Then her taste buds go and it's still, well, this might be funny because the overdecorated wedding cake her daughter is testing obviously has no flavor, hence she is The Victor. And then!

I'm not sure how I got it into my head that this was going to be a comedy, but the plot blurb at Playwrights Horizons is wily both in what it hides and what it gives away: "WHEN A TOUGH-AS-NAILS CONTRACTOR FINDS HER SENSES SLIPPING on the brink of her daughter’s wedding, the impact on her family is nothing less than seismic." To me that screams humorous metaphor, not literal horror story. Only there's a clue right there in the ALL CAPS, because the next thing she loses is her eyesight, followed by her hearing, and what's really happening is a nightmare. Her senses aren't slipping, they're being stripped away without explanation or cause, and what's left is a woman—who by choice and by design has never let anyone in—suddenly finding herself with no other option. Even something as basic as locating the bed or getting to the bathroom is a Herculean feat. What's left to do but sit on the sofa and...sit on the sofa? Everything she trusted is gone.

What it reminded me of was this piece "I Lost a Sock" from the oratorio "Lost Objects" by Bang on a Can, which goes through a long litany of ordinary things that people lose all the time, socks and keys and maps and earrings, and also teeth and fathers and wives. In the process of intoning these random things, 1 2 3 1 2 3 1 2 3, no emphasis is placed on any single item, so that they all hold the same weight and roll together and become mundane, and it builds into something that's not only harrowing but beautiful and sort of comforting.

If you made it the whole way through, I applaud you! Here are five thousand invisible gold doubloons. If not, I'll just tell you it concludes like this: "I lost my anger. / I lost my joy. / I lost my cynicism. / I lost my fear. / I lost my land. / I lost my resistance." Weird and amazing. It's not only what you lose, it's what you find.

And as Emily starts to shut down, she also opens up, both literally and metaphorically, as does John, and what I didn't see coming but seems perfectly obvious now is that the only sense she has left is touch. It's the only connection she can make. There's a line in this poem by Stanley Kunitz about a long-married couple that goes "Touch me, / remind me who I am," and that's where these two end, with a stunningly intimate sex scene that's intense and sad and funny—as well as exceptionally naked—while being completely, wildly, deeply joyous and unexpectedly life-affirming. (I know, right? Next week in the courts I'm changing my name to Kari Saint Adjective-Adverb. Look for it in the Times.)

This is one of those fine-boned dramas of small graces for which I am a particular sucker—which isn't to suggest that it's wispy or, I don't know, tubercular, but it feels like it could crack at any time if somebody so much as breathes in the wrong direction. Pawk pounds on the tough-as-nails part pretty hard at the beginning but really hits her stride when her life starts dropping around her. She's got a magnetic, earthy, Rosalind Russell no-nonsense vibe and a big laugh, and it's nice to see her paired with an equally strong partner, as she is here with Reed Birney, who's wonderful as that most undervalued of common miracles, a really good man. He has a couple of scenes where he just shines, one with Keenan-Bolger, where they're mapping out the seating plan for her wedding dinner, with a lovely short-hand understanding between them, and another during the reception, when he narrates the attendant merrymaking for his now-blind wife. It's not a role this man ever expected to play within the dynamic of this relationship, and watching him struggle to shift into place is a little like watching someone go through open heart surgery, if you get my angle. And by God, they're both adults! It's a marvel to behold.

Keenan-Bolger's part is tough but brave, I think, as a daughter who can't forgive her mother for who she was or what she's become. I always like it when there's one fish that just won't swim, a little resistance to wrapping everything up with a tidy bow (and props to playwright Adam Bock for not giving away all the answers). Williams delivers a late speech about challenges and opportunities that sounds a lot like a speech, but he's a solid force throughout and has a great rapport with Pawk, especially in a brief scene where he simply holds her hand and refuses to lie.

So maybe it was the impending high holy days or the close of a fairly melodramatic personal year, but the whole thing hit me hard, baby, like a sucker punch to the gut—I went in expecting a comedy, remember—and during the last five minutes I was pressing little fingernail half-moons into my palms to keep from sobbing out loud. Isn't that just like a girl? Crying during sex? Just be glad you weren't there—my hands were shaking so badly in the lobby afterward that I could hardly zip up my coat! I'm lucky I didn't walk into a car on my way to the saloon.

And isn't it funny that I started and ended 2010 with a naked play about marriage? WHAT DOES IT MEAN, LORD?

Stieglitz, Steichen & Strand at the Met

In the spirit of trying to not be so crabby, I toddled over hill & dale to the Met this afternoon and lo—a post-Christmas miracle—the Stieglitz, Steichen, and Strand exhibit was mostly bereft of Turistas. Wherefore all the Japanese? Up in Arms and Armor? Bowling with the Cypriots? Forty blocks down at POTO? It's a mystery.

The photographs of Georgia O'Keeffe by Stieglitz were amazing. I'm curious what a night on the town was like with these two, if they played overly literal charades with their cohorts or fought about who left the toaster plugged in when they went on vacation. Where would they go on vacation? Des Moines? I'll bet they would have been at the forefront of any number of cyber-skirmishes in the world of today, very into EFF. Anyway, I will spare your delicate sensibilities & corporate censors THE NUDE, but you should definitely check it out. The angle, the bones, the pure tactile meat of the flesh, it's otherworldly. Those breasts are like Mount Rushmore on the face of the moon. I mean, look at her hands! Or would you call them his hands? It's tough to tell who owned what here, what was real and what was conjured. I love how with black and white your eye is drawn right to the wrinkles, the veins, the shine on the buttons, a lucky bounce of light. They sure knew how to nip a distraction in the bud, these fellas. No flies on them, etc.

Alfred Stieglitz - Georgia O'Keeffe—Hands

4 Edward Steichen - Richard Strauss. Is this not **exactly** what you'd expect the composer of Elektra to look like? Part Nosferatu, part Michael Jeter, full-on Tell-Tale Heart after the suffocation and burial. You should see it up close: those eyes did not have pupils. I really do think he was dead when this was taken.

Paul Strand - Conversation. Currently my favorite Strand is down at the Whitney with Edward Hopper, but I'm equally wild about grizzled old coots. Their beards remind me of my own.

6 Alfred Stieglitz - Mrs. Selma Schubart. This one should also be seen up close: what's on display is a copy of an autochrome, which is highly sensitive to light and therefore not viewable by just any old body at any old time. But even the copy pops with all these krazy day-glo colors and the buckle on her shoe jumps out like a 3D jack-in-the-box, just WHAMMO right betwixt the earlobes, and it's hard to believe anything that alive is over 100 years old.

Ho Ho Ho

Here's hoping your Christmas is merrier than this. Even the dog is yawning!

When I called my mother last night to ask why she signed her card "Love, Mom and Todd," all she had to say was "I was either drunk or tired." One or both of those things must also explain the décor of this room and the general malaise of expression. But why would I be wearing shorts? Nobody knows! Some sort of middle-class hillbilly punishment tactic maybe.

Wishing peace to all, friends. Be safe, be happy, take condoms. And go read why Ricky Gervais is an alien. Oops! I mean atheist.

La Bête at the Music Box, or my year in miniature

What a bland and listless Broadway season! In fact—weeks of glamorous international travel aside—"bland" and "listless" were the trademarks of my year. Broadway is a symptom, she said. I am the disease. Melancholy, tentative, chaotic, reaching out in ten thousand directions and finding not a toehold. A lot of sighing. Tears. Early closures. Snoring in the aisles. Skipping from the next thing to the next—the answer is just around that corner!—and nothing absorbed. Broadway and I spent most of 2010 trying to crawl back into 2009. Did you sense this or did we fool you? Did you believe the flag we waved that said "All is well!" when really, nothing, at all, was anything close to well? We don't know what to be when we grow up, Broadway and I, which is a problem of epic significance on an ant farm scale. Dark thoughts! But small ones.

The danger is making a religion out of soul searching, of self improving, when really, who gives a shit? Life and theatre go on and on and on. The parts all work, they move us forward, and another year waits to punch us in the face. I'll be reading a lot of Beckett, obviously.

Example #1: Have you seen this video, where this middle-aged white guy walks into a school board meeting in Florida, pulls out a gun and very calmly starts shooting at people? Where the fuck do you go after that? He was crazy and all, but still: How is every single minute of your life not a joke when a thing like this is possible at something as boring as a school board meeting? Jesus Christ!

Example #2: When I got out of bed this morning, I heard a noise coming from the kitchen, so I did what I usually do, which was to open up the cupboard under the sink to make sure there were no rodents cavorting with my cookware. The kitchen was dark and I wasn't fully awake, but the first thing I saw was a mouse crouching in one corner, behind the toilet bowl cleaner, and to my credit I did not scream. Instead I slammed the door shut, pulled on a pair of heavy leather boots over my jammies, and placed a frantic call to Sarah, whose first weary-yet-patient question was, "Are you sure it's a mouse?" What the hell! I know what a mouse looks like! But I turned on the lights anyway and slowly opened the cupboard door, and what I saw crouching behind the toilet bowl cleaner wasn't so much a mouse as an Oxo mini salad spinner made out of clear plastic with a big, black, mouse-like button in the center. So you can see how I was confused.

I sense I have meandered from the plot here.

La Bête: a serious-minded playwright in 17th-century France (David Hyde Pierce) is thrown for an existential loop when his patron, a lovely but appropriately imperious princess played by Joanna Lumley, insists that he add a bumbling street clown to his theatrical troupe. This is Mark Rylance, paired with a set of false teeth and a recreationally medicated style of delivery that foretells a middle-period James Franco, all cheekbones and oblivious, gleeful button pushing.

The story pits the purity of artistic intention (does art exist for art's sake?) against the desire to simply entertain (does art exist to satisfy an audience?) and seems to answer both in the affirmative: yes, morally we are the measure of the choices that we make, and yes, we do enjoy a fart joke, of which there are several. Its very means of presentation throws the balance all to one side, though, as Rylance takes off on a 30-minute near-monologue at the beginning, a tour de force of self-involved boobery that annihilates everything in its wake. This is logorrhea as a heroic dedication to itself, and thus perfectly Twitter-made: a character defined by the vacant babble of every meandering, disconnected, context-free thought that comes into his head. What starts out as whimsy turns almost tragic by the end, as you wonder what sort of hollow is being painted over by so much nonsense.

But that's a question we're meant to ask ourselves, if at all, and it's a bit of a slog after that, advancing by inches without actually developing anything (ho ho ho, like this blog post!) and closing with a didactic, fog-enshrouded thud. But did you enjoy it? Oh yes! I laughed my bargain-priced-ticket tail off, along with most of the audience (save the gray-headed dame ahead of us who nodded off loudly towards the middle) and marked it in the win column for the season. It felt churlish and un-American not to. Topnotch performances, solid direction, high gloss and hearty style, and it left me the minute I left the theater.

It's closing early, by the way. Would that 2010 could do the same.

The Mitre

We went to the Mitre; the Mitre came to us. We fell upon it, actually. A salvation. Inside, we looked for Lord Peter. That small part of our brains that believe, still, somehow, it must, they must, he must be real. Don't you sometimes believe it, too?

"Have I been asleep?"

"Getting on for two hours," said Harriet, with a pleased chuckle.

"Good Lord, what disgusting behaviour! I am frightfully sorry. Why didn't you give me a shout? What time is it? My poor girl, you'll get no dinner to-night if we don't hurry up. Look here, I do apologise most abjectly."

"It doesn't matter a bit. You were awfully tired."

"That's no excuse." He was on his feet now, extricating the punt-poles from the mud. "We might make it by double-punting — if you'll forgive the infernal cheek of asking you to work to make up for my soul-destroying sloth."

"I'd love to punt. But, Peter!" She suddenly liked him enormously. "What's the hurry? I mean, is the Master expecting you, or anything?"

"No; I've removed myself to the Mitre. I can't use the Master's lodgings as a hotel; besides, they've got people coming in."

"Then couldn't we get something to eat somewhere along the river and make a day of it? I mean, if you feel like it. Or must you have a proper dinner?"

"My dear, I would gladly eat husks for having behaved like a dog. Or thistles. Preferably thistles. You are a most forgiving woman."

Magdalen Bridge

The traffic made it impossible to actually photograph the bridge, but again: I did what I could! Anyway, we learned that it's pronounced "Maudlin," which seemed pretty important.

"It's a beautiful night—far too good to waste. Don't go back yet. Come down to Magdalen Bridge and send your love to London River."

— Lord Peter to Harriet in Gaudy Night, Chapter XXIII

Gaudy Night at The Millions

Props from a writer at one of my favorite book sites:

Another book I loved was Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers. It’s a mystery set at Oxford University and follows Harriet Vane and the irrepressible Lord Peter Wimsey as they try to unravel the meaning behind a series of obscene and threatening notes someone has been leaving around Shrewsbury College. Harriet struggles with her attraction to Peter and her desire to remain independent, and actually there’s a lot of wry commentary about just that—the pressure to marry and make house and the desire to get an education and contribute to society. Also, it’s great to read about Oxford in the thirties because it just seems so different from here.

A Year in Reading: Emma Rathbone

London for Thanksgiving

Random Vacation Notes

It was very cold. 

Our hotel was the Base2Stay Kensington at 25 Courtfield Gardens. The towel racks were heated yet nothing spontaneously combusted. Crazy!

I was lucky to be traveling with three ladies who love posing for pictures, there's none of that "For fuck's sake, not again" exhaustion or even feigned exhaustion, they are all good fakers and complete hams even when they're truly exhausted. And so pretty! If you stacked the two things Sarah loves best—laughing and being photographed—on one of those justice scales, it's tough to tell which side would pull her down first. She would hire her own private paparazzo if she could.

Also, this was Chelsea's first trip to London—in fact her first international trip ever—and although she rejected all of our suggested nicknames, I would say she passed the test. 

Day 1

We had Thanksgiving breakfast at Balans. For the record I will trade a turkey dinner for the full English anytime.

Thanksgiving's big activity was a ride on The Eye, which I've wanted to do for ages and ages. I guess it's a little like going to the top of the Empire State Building or visiting the Statue of Liberty, but I love those things, too. I mean, let's call a nerd a nerd.

That afternoon we spent a lot of time on the Golden Jubilee Bridge at near-twilight, being loud and American. Oh, but I repeat myself!

Thursday night, Roxie and I saw the other two off to the prom (opera), then went for dinner at Bumpkin in Notting Hill. We split a bottle of rosé and enjoyed a long lovely chat, and that is all I have to say about Bumpkin in Notting Hill.

Day 2

Friday was our Gaudy Night field trip to Oxford. There are 39 separate colleges spread out through this little town and we passed maybe 10 of them, most of which are closed to visitors. You would need 18 pairs of legs to see everything in one day.

Day 3

Saturday morning Sarah and I had lunch at the Tate, which was the best part of the Tate aside from Rodin's The Kiss, which I plan to follow around the world. I enjoyed the slow-cooked pork shoulder sandwich, the view from the restaurant on the top floor of the Tate, and Rodin. I ate a lot of pork on this trip; it was an almost exclusively piggy week. Nobody knows why.

In the afternoon I strolled around Borough Market and then headed east towards Tower Bridge and then north to  Brick Lane where I strolled right off the map and feared I'd have to pee in a corner until finally I stumbled upon Liverpool Station. Stop and think before you decide to walk everywhere alone, that's all I'm saying.

Day 4

On Sunday we wandered through Bloomsbury searching for the ghost of Dorothy L. Sayers and found her just where we thought she'd be, on a quiet little street in a tidy little building watching cable TV.

At least one of us has a copy of Gaudy Night with her at all times. You would call it a talisman, I believe, which according to some dictionary is both a lucky charm and something called a "juju," which is essentially witchcraft. I can't really argue with that. Roxie brought her special carryalong version, which she can never toss because I made her underline all the good parts.

We found the actual street where Harriet Vane lives in Gaudy Night, or would have lived if she were an actual person (which let's face it she kind of is). In modern times Harriet Vane would ride the Swamp Rat, still dressed in her cozy tweeds and little cap and Magical Blouse of Vulnerability. 

On Sunday afternoon a girl we passed on a deserted street in Bloomsbury pointed us in the direction of a local pub and we followed the direction of her pointing down an even more deserted street and at the end of it was The Duke, which is how I came to spend Sunday afternoon with three friends in a corner booth in a corner pub in Bloomsbury drinking a glass of cider and watching the room turn gold as the sun fell around us, and I got that feeling I always connect to my family, of being happy and safe and home, no matter where we are, and a couple of times it came at me so intensely I thought for sure it would shoot right out through the top of my head. Yet I managed to hold it in. This was my Thanksgiving.

One ivory chess set

This is actually marble, I believe, but we did the best we could.

"I'm sorry, Peter. That was ungenerous and beastly of me. You shall give me something if you want to."
"May I? What shall I give you? Roc's eggs are cheap today."
For a moment her mind was a blank. Whatever she asked him for, it must be something adequate. The trivial, the commonplace or the merely expensive would all be equally insulting. And he would know in a moment if she was inventing a want to please him...
"Peter — give me the ivory chessmen."

Gaudy Night, Chapter XIX