Saturday, March 07, 2009

You're still goin' strong ...

This past Tuesday night I had one of the most unusual and memorable evenings. I had been invited to see Carol Channing inaugurate a new cabaret series at L.A.'s Magic Castle, a huge old mansion sitting on a hill off Franklin Avenue in Hollywood that is a kind of private club for magicians. Historically, entry is granted only to members and invited guests. For this new cabaret series, however, a limited number of tickets are available to nonmembers.

I was looking forward to the event mostly because I've never seen Carol Channing live -- not even in one of her 5,000+ nights spent playing Dolly Levi in the many iterations of Hello, Dolly! over my lifetime. So there was a certain camp factor. Also, I had never been inside the Magic Castle, so it seemed like it would be a great combination.

I was not prepared for effect she would have.

First of all, our seats were amazing. A stage-side table on the stage-left side in what was already an incredibly intimate room. When the 88-year-old Miss Channing finally took the stage, she was never more than about 10 feet from us -- most of the time considerably closer. She's had a couple of hip operations in the past year, so she moves very carefully and is wafer thin. There is a certain fragility in her physical presence. But mentally? Emotionally? Intellectually? This woman is so sharp. I was blown away by her intelligence. I think she might be off-the-charts MENSA smart.

She mostly told stories, sprinkled with snippets of songs here and there. But among her first bits was a recalling of her initial audition for the president of William Morris all those years ago. Coming from a small, intellectually rigorous women's college in New England (Bennington), she thought for sure he would appreciate a serious song in old French telling the story of Orestes. And suddenly she's singing it, in this low, gutteral voice. And it just keeps going! It was at turns hilarious and mind-bogglingly impressive. For an encore with the big wig at the agency, she sang a song in some ancient language that was written in 9/5 time ("Oh, you know about that?" she says with flawless timing when audience members laugh at the obscure time signature). She borrows a drum from her drummer and proceeds to bang out 9/5 time and begin this bizarre chant-like number. I don't know if it translates here, but I just couldn't believe my eyes and ears! It was like some strange celebrity fringe festival act. The cognitive dissonance of watching the daffy Dolly Levi acting out such a moment was delightfully disorienting.

She has incredible recall of events and conversations, or certainly a finely-honed aptitude for making it appear so. And to watch that razor-sharp comic timing as up close as you can be was a dream.

Among those sharing the room with me and Miss Channing were Lily Tomlin and her longtime partner, Jane Wagner. Lily has an old bit about RSVP'ing for events as "Lily and, maybe, Jane," because Jane is a famous last-minute canceller. Well, Jane was there, so Carol must rate. And watching those two incredible talents watching Carol Channing was a treat in and of itself. Lily was like a good student, soaking up every bit of business and watching with appreciation and wonder.

The event was meant to benefit a new initiative Miss Channing is launching to get the arts back in California public schools. Most people at 88 wouldn't take on such an ambitious mission, but that says something about her restless spirit and mind I suppose.

This photo shows her greeting Tippi Hedron on her way out. I like it because you can fully appreciate the incredible condition she is in. There aren't many 88-year-olds who can take off their white jacket part-way through a show and continue to perform in a tight, shiny turtle-neck number, but there she was.

Again, I went thinking it would be a hoot and came away inspired by this woman's incredible mind, unstoppable energy and brilliant gifts of timing and presence. An unforgettable night.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Another lion felled

It is not my intention to make this blog some kind of collection of obituaries, but so soon after the death of Harold Pinter it makes me terribly sad to acknowledge the passing this past week of John Updike, an American writer of such voraciousness that the sheer volume of his output would qualify him as a writer of note, never mind the fact that he constructed some of the most elegant, deliciously observant sentences of the past 50 years. Along the way he collected a couple of Pulitzers and many other awards, honorary degrees and acknowledgments of his artistry with words.

I had the good fortune of hearing Mr. Updike speak in person only a couple of months ago, in November 2008, shortly after the presidential election. He was appearing in conversation at UCLA with David Ulin, book editor at the Los Angeles Times, in promotion of his latest [and, sadly, last] novel, The Widows of Eastwick, a sequel to his popular Witches of Eastwick of several decades earlier. At that time, I detected no hint of the lurking lung cancer that apparently stole his restless creativity from us. He seemed energetic, upbeat and determined to continue to write.

In fact, one of the things I took from the event was an appreciation for Mr. Updike's almost Victorian dedication to working. He seemed driven simultaneously by a Protestant work ethic and an admitted delight in seeing his name in print. He also seemed slightly haunted by a concomitant fear in letting too much time pass between bylines, as if the ever-shortening attention span of contemporary society would quickly forget him if he didn't accept that next commission. This is partly what drew him to accept the latest in a string of some 825 assignments for the New Yorker, for example [the last of which was a typically honest but generous review of Toni Morrison's latest novel published in early November].

Another interesting point from that November event is that, when asked about the recent election, Mr. Updike expressed excitement at the prospect of "having a writer in the White House." It was such an interesting perspective to me, as I had not, in all the wild media coverage of the election process, identified Barack Obama with the simple label of "writer." But there was Updike, reminding us that the man had written not one, but two books on his own. And he believed that the qualities it takes to see a book through publication would hold him in good stead in the impossibly complex position of president. Let us hope he was on to something there.

Unlike his peers -- Philip Roth, John Cheever, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer -- Updike set himself a strict schedule of production and pretty much published a book a year, be it a novel or a collection of essays or short stories. His output was staggering, as if he was attempting to capture all of our existence in the fleeting beauty of the perfect sentence. Like Meryl Streep as an actor, he was criticized for having too much technique, for being too skilled, for allowing us to see that he was a unique talent. That seems faint criticism to me.

I have read much of his work and, for my taste, it is fine to get lost in the beauty of a dazzling sentence. That's partly why I bother to read other people's writing. Yes, his Rabbit novels are his best known, but for my money there is no topping his inexplicably underestimated masterpiece, In the Beauty of the Lilies. This epic work spans four generations of an American family in the 20th century. All I can tell you is that as I finished it, on the sand on a Long Island beach in the late '90s, I nearly wept at the final images and mourned the turning of the last page. It was a perfectly constructed work of fiction, in my opinion, and like a gigantic spider web, created in such modest silence that I didn't even notice its grandeur until I got to the end and could step back and admire the whole.

In an era of such superficiality, Mr. Updike was also an unabashed man of letters. He wrote novels, poetry, short stories, essays and criticism of books and art. He did it all. And, it seems, he loved every minute of it. He leaves us with many heart-stopping sentences to read, many observations to contemplate. It was a life well spent, and I am richer for having encountered him.

Nothing would please him more than if you used your library card to sample some of his prose.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Homecoming

On Christmas day, at my sister's house in snowy New Hamphire, I logged onto the Internet in the late morning, only to discover that actor/playwright/poet/activist Harold Pinter had died on Christmas Eve following a long illness. I'd never met the man, but having worked on his deliciously mysterious and rich plays -- as both a director and an actor -- I had gone through periods of obsession with his life and work, which led me to feel great sadness at his passing. He was a titan. A towering literary figure who remade the landscape of what we consider theatrical. As esteemed British playwright David Hare said on Christmas, "Yesterday we all knew who the greatest living British dramatist was. Today we don't."

Pinter was certainly a complicated man. His personal life was not always pleasant, and a son from his first marriage -- his only child -- was estranged for years and right up to his death. Pinter's plays could be brutal, and he could be withering in his dismissal of others. On the other hand, his lifelong love of cricket betrayed a playful side that could easily be overlooked by simply examining the subject matter of his plays. I like the photo here -- taken of the writer in his London study in 2007 -- because the prominent painting of him in full cricket gear reveals the importance the sport had in his life.

In Pinter's work, everyday relationships are battles. The stakes are high and often the cause of conflict remains unknown. He was brave enough to put life and behavior on stage with little or no explanation, sometimes leaving critics and audiences angry and confused. But rarely bored. Early in his career, when asked what his work was about, he mischievously replied, "the weasel behind the cocktail cabinet." What was meant as a ridiculous red herring was often taken as gospel, with Pinter later joking that he shuddered to see the quotation repeated in academic articles written about him.

For my money, Mr. Pinter was a true original -- a term that gets thrown around with too much ease these days. Nobody wrote like him, though thousands tried. His literary voice is unmistakable. His mixture of black humor and brutality speak to the complexities of human relationships and, I believe, call us to be better than we typically are. In recent years his plays have enjoyed a robust renaissance both in New York and London, with major productions of The Homecoming, Betrayal, The Hothouse, The Room and No Man's Land lighting up stages on both sides of the Atlantic. I hope to have the chance to work on more of his plays in the future. They are endlessly fascinating, challenging, puzzling and gratifying.

When asked in recent years if he thought he would write any more plays, Pinter famously declared, "I've written 29 damn plays. Isn't that enough?"


Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The School of Rock

It was fitting that VH1 decided to honor The Who in a venue at UCLA because the old boys conducted quite the master class in blistering rock 'n' roll on Saturday night. For anyone who's been following it all, I'm sure you've read about who was there, what was played, etc., so I won't attempt to give a comprehensive report here. Just a few impressions and, for me, highlights.

First of all, in the good karma department, I didn't buy an expensive ticket for this show because the belt is pretty tight these days -- what with being in school and $5 per gallon gas -- so I was determined to be content with my sky-high seat hovering over the Pete side of the stage. So imagine my surprise when an usher came along with a big smile on his face and ushered five of us from our last-row perch all the way downstairs to the floor (VH1, after all, couldn't have empty seats downstairs for the television broadcast -- doesn't look good on camera). So in the blink of an eye, I was downstairs, about half-way back on Pete's side in a section of slightly raised seats. Perfect! And all for the price of a cheap seat.

Foo Fighters kicked things off with a killer version of "Young Man Blues." They were lean and mean, just like the band being honored was in its heyday. Dave Grohl sounded froggy, but it worked for the song.

The Flaming Lips were characteristically insane, with Wayne walking out into the audience in one of his plastic bubbles. Their Tommy medley was terrific, with just enough reverence for the occasion and just enough absurdity to live up to their reputation. The bassist was in an Entwistle-esque Isle-of-Wight skeleton costume, and the drummer kicked over his kit at the end of their bit.

Incubus was one of the evening's biggest surprises for me, as they tore it up with "I Can See for Miles," one of the most difficult Who songs to pull off live, if you ask me. Brandon Boyd, while sporting an irritatingly undetectable level of body fat, sang with passion and even a little bit of danger. Their "Can't Explain" seemed anticlimactic after "Miles." An excellent job from the metal kids.

Tenacious D did their thing with "Squeezebox," one of my least favorite songs but a perfect one for their shenanigans. Jack Black's eyes could power Las Vegas with their intensity. Great fun.

Pearl Jam, it seems, had been waiting their whole lives for this night. Given the task of honoring Quadrophenia, they opened with an astonishing rendition of "Love Reign O'er Me," complete with a string section. I wanted them to do the whole double album, they were so fantastic. Eddie Vedder, an avowed Who fan, left it all on the stage that night. Their second [and sadly, last] number was a turbo-charged version of "The Real Me," with a small brass section accompanying them this time. Their bassist was recreating with abandon and precision every dancing, syncopated bass line laid down by the late, great Ox. It was thunderous. They seemed to be having the time of their lives "playing Who." It was magic.

Then the boys came out. "Baba" started things off, with the '70s-era green lasers slicing through the dark like switchblades. Roger sounded fantastic -- tanned, rested and ready -- and Pete stalked the stage like a caged lion, giving off an "F-you" energy that reminded us all that they got where they are by shattering convention, sneering at the establishment and breaking a lot of expensive stuff, not by smiling and graciously accepting awards and accolades.

Pete didn't speak to or even look at the audience, it seemed. Almost like he didn't want to be there. But whatever was bothering him [I later read he tore off a nail early in the set, and I did see blood on a Stratocaster on the video screen], he channeled it all into the music. "If it's a rock god on guitar they want, then that's what they'll get," he seemed to be saying, hurling himself [sometimes literally] into the music with a ferocity that was almost frightening.

Sound troubles seemed to be plaguing Pete, as he was gesturing to Bobby Pridden offstage frequently, occasionally stopping to stare in puzzlement at his elaborate console. He even stopped "You Better You Bet" part-way through and was yelling offstage. When it seemed he wasn't being understood he traipsed over to his mic and said, pointing to a monitor, "Whatever you've got in here, take it out. It's DEAFENING!" And the place went nuts. Roger, trying to keep a happy face on, said, "Shit happens! Shall we start again?" And they did the song over, much better this time. Pete followed by immediately launching into "My Generation," with no count in or warning, leaving the band and, most importantly, Roger, standing on the platform as the train left the station. It was the most virile, rebellious version of that song I've heard since Monterey Pop. Just incredible.

A mandolin, acoustic, country-ish version of "2,000 Years" from Endless Wire was the surprise song of the night. It was a delight to hear them do it, with Simon, Pete and Pino combining for some O, Brother, Where Art Thou?-style plucking and Roger sounding terrific. I doubt it will make it to television, though. Lots of folks [who are these people?] went to get beer during it.

"Won't Get Fooled Again" was everything you'd want it to be, with a mad jam at the end in which Pete and Zak seemed to go to another planet together, thrashing in unison like possessed animals. I'll be curious to see how it comes across on television, and even if VH1 airs the whole jam. It made Incubus, Foos, Lips and Pearl Jam seem careful and dainty. And proved the point of the whole night.

Zak deserves special mention. He was on fire throughout, as if the short set gave him permission to pull out all the stops. I've never heard him so "in charge" on stage, clearly leading the rest of the band at times in terms of tempo and dynamics. And Pino was higher in the mix than I've ever heard him, at times giving that Entwistle-esque bottom to the whole sound.

Pete and Roger made some comments at the end, with Pete taking a swipe at Roger for not writing any songs. It was like watching a married couple fight in public. Somehow perfect, though, considering their history.

One of the true highlights for me was meeting up with Cathy with a C, Colleen and Jim (Purple5) for a drink after. Good company and great conversation with people who, before this, were simply names and avatars online. We closed a joint in Westwood just sitting talking -- and not even very much about The Who. What a treat. Thanks to Cathy for calling me and stopping me from going straight home!

Hope all this is interesting to some of you who weren't able to be in the room. It was one of the best nights of music I've ever had.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Coming home 40 years later

There are many times during the year when I think there's nowhere I'd rather live than Los Angeles. Christmas Eve was one of those days, when it was 72 degrees, blue sky and bright sunshine. As I sat on the roof deck, overlooking the City of Angels, reading a wonderful novel [more about that in another post] in the seductive sun, I felt as if I was on vacation in Mexico or something. But, every once in a while there is an event in New York that makes me green with envy for those who live there. One such event is the new revival of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming that landed on Broadway earlier this month, 40 years after the still shocking play made its American debut. If you had to chose, it is probably Pinter's greatest work, or at least his most quintessential. (Are there degrees of quintessence? I'm not sure ...) The Homecoming has it all -- fantastically vicious language, a barely contained underbelly of violence, dizzying sexual combat and some of the funniest insults ever spoken out loud. There is a divine piece of writing by John Lahr in the current New Yorker magazine about Pinter and the play. If you have a little time, I highly recommend it. Lahr has known Pinter personally for decades, and it is most illuminating.

Reading that wonderful piece of writing about theater made me consider what some of my favorite moments in the theater were this past year. I had the good fortune of seeing many wonderful productions, some to review and some simply for pleasure. As I look back [rather informally], here are some memorable shows and performances that come to mind.

Bill Irwin and Kathleen Turner in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- This was a touring version of a recent Broadway production. While Turner was tailor-made for the boozy, bawdy Martha, my review said, "It is Irwin who provides the revelation in this riveting revival. His George is full of surprises, taking lines familiar from the celebrated Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton film and delivering them with fresh nuance and more than a little savory sarcasm. In the end it is the seemingly submissive George who rules this rotting roost with a carefully calibrated cruelty that earns Martha's admiration. Perhaps these two really love each other after all."

Another favorite of mine was another visitor from Broadway -- Avenue Q came to L.A. three years after surprising the pundits and snagging the best musical Tony from the greedy clutches of the multi-million dollar Wicked. The musical's joyously iconoclastic use of puppets and subversive humor combined with a heart as big as Central Park to produce a work as silly as it was profound. Here's part of what I had to say: "Along with countless belly laughs, some outrageous puppet sex and a score of hummably silly tunes, Avenue Q is surprisingly moving. Without ever taking itself too seriously, the show manages to tackle issues of racism, homophobia, loneliness and community with heartfelt power. And the characters' examinations of life's delights and disappointments have a stealthy power that sneaks up on you behind a deceptive sheen of silliness." After noting that the score had that rare quality of clever originality in an era of increasingly derivative and corporately vetted musicals, I ended, perhaps a bit grandly, with: "Avenue Q provides hope for the genre even as it leaves us laughing long and hard."

Some other shows I really enjoyed:
Michael John LaChiusa's quirky Little Fish at the Blank Theatre
A Delicate Balance at Ventura's Rubicon Theatre
Hamish Linklater's Hamlet at South Coast Rep
The Lost Studio's production of Pinter's delicate Moonlight
The L.A. premiere of The History Boys, mostly for Dakin Matthews' wonderful Hector
The breathtaking choreography (Lee Martino) in Reprise's On Your Toes

And, perhaps my favorite performance of the year, Ian McKellen as King Lear, giving us a king of such humanity and humor that we were able to follow [and understand] every step of his hideous journey and, hopefully, learn from his heinous mistakes.

Here's hoping for many more surprising, moving, uplifting and challenging evenings in the dark in 2008.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Class Action

Well, Barry Bonds did it. He passed Hank Aaron's magic total of 755 career home runs to become the all-time home run king. How far he'll go, nobody yet knows. But I can't help feeling sad for the game of baseball. Clouds of suspicion hang over the new record, as we all wonder just how juiced Barry was during those shockingly productive years from his late 30s to his early 40s, a time when most players are winding down their careers, cruising downhill to search for an opening to a graceful exit from the game they have played all their lives. In Bonds' case, he actually got better, more productive, as he approached 40. Something doesn't smell right, there, and it will all come out someday. But in the meantime, we have an obnoxious, needy, self-centered slugger owning the ultimate sports crown.

The picture here is a drawing of Henry Aaron by renowned sports cartoonist Bruce Stark. In the summer of '73, Mr. Stark created drawings of the Yankees and Mets that were printed in the Sunday Daily News funnies, with each week featuring a different position -- the two teams' shortstops being shown one week, and their third basemen the next.

As a kid, I copied and learned from Stark's drawings. And I learned from Mr. Aaron, too. I learned that being the best at something didn't necessarily mean having to tell people you were the best. I learned that quiet, consistent excellence could result in eventual greatness. And I learned, as he received death threats the closer he got to the great [white] Babe Ruth's record, that success and achievement did not necessarily equate with joy and happiness. In fact, it seems Mr. Aaron was quite miserable the closer he got to the immortal Babe's record, hiding his wife and children from journalists and the potential crazy person who might want to do them harm.

When Barry Bonds broke Hammerin' Hank's record this past week, Mr. Aaron made a rather surprising appearance on the video scoreboard to congratulate his successor. Surprising because he had seemed so dead set against being a part of the circus surrounding Bonds' pursuit of the record amid allegations of illegal performance enhancers [read: steroids]. In the end, Mr. Aaron proved to be as filled with class as one could be. He graciously congratulated Bonds, while maintaining a polite and understandable distance from the whole thing.

The point could be moot in five to six years if Alex Rodriguez keeps up his pace and passes Bonds, with a steroids-free record and a much more gracious personality.

All in all, the events of the past week made me sad for baseball today, and made me even prouder of my childhood hero with the quiet dignity, unparalleled consistency and admirable class. Mr. Aaron has been surpassed. Long live Mr. Aaron.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Can it be 30 years?

No, not since I last posted to this blog. Although that's close. But it was thirty years ago that New York City saw the Son of Sam stalking couples in parked cars throughout the outer boroughs. It was thirty years ago that the great blackout of '77 hit the Big Apple. It was thirty years ago that a little-known Congressman named Ed Koch beat a field that included Mario Cuomo, Bella Abzug and incumbent Abe Beame to become mayor of the troubled city. And it was thirty years ago that the New York Yankees officially stole the title of the Bronx Zoo from their neighboring institution for an outrageous confluence of outsized personalities battling each other and the rest of baseball for a world championship.

I was 12 going on 13 at the time, and it was a very memorable year.

ESPN is reliving it all for me in a summer miniseries titled, The Bronx Is Burning, based on Jonathan Mahler's book [which I got a couple years ago but haven't finished] about the 1977 baseball season and all the other simultaneous events. It was in many ways a low point for New York City. Middle class families like mine had left places like Throggs Neck in the Bronx for more stable locales outside the city. The city was teetering on bankruptcy, without the resources to supply the necessary law enforcement presence to combat the increasing restlessness and disaffection among so many of its citizens. But through it all, the Yankees fought their way to a pennant and -- not to give away the ending -- a World Series title.

The events of the ESPN series are from a time when I was most obsessed with baseball. In fact, as the first episode aired, I kept announcing what was about to happen, leading my forgiving but bemused partner to ask, "Why do you have to watch this? You know it all!" But, like an old episode of The Honeymooners, long ago memorized, the satisfaction is in knowing what's coming, watching it arrive, and then appreciating it all over again after it's gone.

To be really honest, I have no idea how good the series really is. I am completely, hopelessly unobjective. But it seems that John Turturro has studied and channeled the tortured Billy Martin. It seems that Oliver Platt has fully embraced the Midwest vowels and self-conscious bullying of George Steinbrenner. And the producers know just when to cut away to real footage, so we don't have to watch actors attempt to simulate the swing of Reggie Jackson or Thurman Munson.

Even the show's theme music is of the period, some sort of brilliant reimagining of the themes from shows like Mannix or Kojak. It almost, dare I say it, sounds like a Mike Post theme.

Maybe there's something fundamental, even elemental, about that age. As I said, I was on the brink of my teens. I remember it all clearly. When the blackout came, my parents wondered if something had happened at the Indian Point nuclear plant. The sky had an eerie glow and it was very quiet. I think that summer was when I first started to read a newspaper, fascinated by the hunt for the Son of Sam, who could have been outside our windows at night for all I knew, even though we were supposedly in a safe remove from the urban jungle in our recently purchased suburban home.

It almost feels like ESPN created the series for me. And, to an extent, I suppose they did. Counting on there being enough like me, around my age, who could relate with the same kind of odd nostalgia to a time that was troubled, turbulent and transitional. A far cry from the Disney-dominated Times Square of today, or the corporately composed professionals of the current Yankee clubhouse -- both of which are probably preferable in the long run, but less romantic, to be sure.

If you're still reading, it means you are a dedicated friend of this blog. Thanks for that. And do check out an episode of The Bronx is Burning, and let me know what you think.

Whew, I got a post in during the month of July! Hope to be back more often in August.