Short is beautiful

In today’s Wall Street Journal I review a pair of New York comedies, David Ives’ Lives of the Saints and Larry David’s Fish in the Dark. One is a lot better than the other. Here’s an excerpt.

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To the earnest, comedy is confusing. How can anything funny be truly serious? Their idea of a good time is a three-hour, six-hankie weeper about an atheist oncologist who comes home from a hard day at the storefront clinic to find his wife hanging from the showerhead, though they’ll settle for “Death of a Salesman.” If you doubt that such folk exist in abundance, ask yourself this: When did you last see David Ives’ name on anybody’s short list of major American playwrights? Yet Mr. Ives, who made his name writing comic sketches of the utmost brilliance and creativity before stepping up to the full-length plate with masterly plays like “New Jerusalem” and “Venus in Fur,” is one of this country’s half-dozen greatest living dramatists. An artist of the highest possible seriousness, he prefers to laugh at the vanity of human wishes instead of weeping.

Primary Stages - Lives of the Saints“Lives of the Saints,” Mr. Ives’ latest off-Broadway venture, is a mixed bill of six one-act comedies, three of which are new and only one of which has previously been performed on a New York stage. If you’ve never seen any of his short plays, you’ll be staggered by how much meaning he can pack into 15 tightly written minutes. One of the new plays, “Life Signs,” is an epitome of his jovially surreal method. The curtain rises on a young man, his wife, his late mother and her spectacularly tactless doctor, who has just pronounced her dead. Only she isn’t: No sooner does the doctor leave the room than she comes back to life and starts revealing jaw-dropping secrets about her sex life. The shock effect is explosively funny, but within a few minutes you start to figure out that “Life Signs” is really a disguised version of “Our Town” in miniature, and all at once everyone in the theater catches on, stops laughing and becomes swept up in matters of profound import….

“Fish in the Dark,” which Larry David wrote as a vehicle for himself, is more in the nature of a well-remunerated personal appearance than an actual play. A thimbleweight comedy about two bickering brothers (played by Mr. David and Ben Shenkman) brought together by the death of their father, it consists of several thousand jokes, most of which involve somebody saying something inappropriate. Imagine a Neil Simon play without a plot—or three bottom-drawer episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” hastily knocked together into a two-hour script—and you’ll get the idea….

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To read my review of Lives of the Saints, go here.

To read my review of Fish in the Dark, go here.

An interview with David Ives, John Rando, and members of the cast of Lives of the Saints:

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Almanac: Anthony Trollope on regret

INK BOTTLE“Little bits of things make me do it;—perhaps a word that I said and ought not to have said ten years ago;—the most ordinary little mistakes, even my own past thoughts to myself about the merest trifles. They are always making me shiver.”

Anthony Trollope, Can You Forgive Her?

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So you want to see a show?

Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)
It’s Only a Play (comedy, PG-13/R, closes June 7, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)
On the Town (musical, G, contains double entendres that will not be intelligible to children, reviewed here)

The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
Hamilton (historical musical, PG-13, closes May 3, moves to Broadway Aug. 6, reviewed here)

Both Your Houses (political satire, G/PG-13, closes Apr. 12, reviewed here)
MatchmakerRoederThe Matchmaker (romantic farce, G, closes Apr. 11, reviewed here)

Between Riverside and Crazy (drama, PG-13, remounting of off-Broadway production, closes Mar. 22, original production reviewed here)

Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, most performances sold out last week, closes Mar. 29, reviewed here)

Henry V (Shakespeare, PG-13, closes Mar. 22, reviewed here)

West Side Story (musical, PG-13, closes Mar. 15, reviewed here)

The Iceman Cometh (drama, PG-13, remounting of Chicago production, closes Mar. 15, original production reviewed here)

To Kill a Mockingbird (drama, PG-13, reviewed here)

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Almanac: Anthony Trollope on the necessity of love

INK BOTTLE“But she knew this,—that it was necessary for her happiness that she should devote herself to some one. All the elegancies and outward charms of life were delightful, if only they could be used as the means to some end. As an end themselves they were nothing. ”

Anthony Trollope, Phineas Redux

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The horse’s mouth

I’ve always had a special love for recordings of important classical pieces that were made by their composers. A great many classical composers of significance have made recordings, and four of them, Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Richard Strauss, were world-class performers who would likely have become famous had they never written a note. Quite a few others—Barber, Bartók, Debussy, Elgar, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Saint-Saëns, and Shostakovich come immediately to mind—also made accomplished recordings, usually but not always of their own music.

On the other hand, some of the best-known composer-performers, judging by their records, left a certain amount to be desired in the technique department. Aaron Copland and Igor Stravinsky, for instance, were excellent pianists but fair-to-middling conductors whose recordings, interesting though they always are, cannot necessarily be taken at face value as representative documents of their interpretative intentions.

Stravinsky’s conducting, both on and off record, was the source of much controversy during his lifetime, and qualified observers of his live performances not infrequently spoke scathingly of them. Paul Hindemith, who heard Stravinsky conduct three of his ballets in New York in 1935, described the results bluntly in a letter to his wife:

It began with Apollo, the music of which struck me today as very corpse-like; this must surely have been because the good Igor is a truly mediocre conductor and cunningly avoids any step in the direction of free and spontaneous music making.

W-5-3-2-PH-mit-Bratsche_02I quote from this letter because it was written around the time that Hindemith, who was also a violist, recorded his own Der Schwanendreher with a chamber orchestra led by none other than Arthur Fiedler, the Boston Pops man. In his youth Hindemith won high praise for his playing, but he didn’t practice much (if at all) after he became a famous composer, and by 1929, when he gave the premiere of William Walton’s Viola Concerto in London, his playing, as Walton remembered it, wasn’t exactly what you’d expect from a virtuoso: “His technique was marvelous, but he was rough—no nonsense about it. He just stood up and played.”

Hindemith’s recording of Der Schwanendreher, made in Boston in 1935, leaves no doubt of the continuing decline in his playing. His technique is infirm, his intonation slightly but perceptibly erratic. When he played the same piece four years later with the San Francisco Symphony, Alfred Frankenstein made no secret of his displeasure:

To be perfectly frank, another thing that did not live up to specifications was Hindemith’s viola playing. His records are magnificent, but yesterday afternoon the tone seemed somewhat wiry and strained and devoid of the mellow quality, characteristic of the instrument.

Small wonder that Hindemith ceased shortly thereafter to appear in public as a soloist.

40ee515ec2Why, then, would anyone want to listen to Hindemith’s recording of Der Schwanendreher? One reason, of course, is that any recording by a major composer is worth hearing. Assuming that he himself found it satisfactory—and we know from his letters that he enjoyed working with Fiedler—it tells us by definition something of interest about his interpretative intentions. But I hear something else in this 1935 recording. To me it is…well, a relic, in the specifically religious sense of the word.

Pretty much everyone now agrees that Hindemith was at the very least an important composer, and I happen to think he was a great one. In 2002 I called him “the last German master of music,” uneven but true, who at his not-infrequent best was capable of turning out “pieces of extreme beauty.” The slow movement of Der Schwanendreher, which is based on two German folksongs, is one of those pieces, and Hindemith wrote it at a time when it was becoming evident to him that the German musical culture in which he was so deeply rooted was being poisoned by Nazism. He emigrated three years after recording Der Schwanendreher, setting up shop as a professor of music at Yale and, in due course, becoming an American citizen.

While we cannot know what was going through Hindemith’s mind when he recorded this piece, I like to think that he was remembering the soon-to-be-lost world of his youth, and that his playing—a bit scratchy, a bit shaky, but audibly heartfelt—was a requiem of sorts for what he was in the process of losing. I can’t believe that it was a coincidence that the first of the two folksongs on which this movement is based is a song of sorrow: Shed your leaves, little linden tree,/I can bear it no longer:/I have lost my love,/And today is mournful.

So hear, if you will, the melancholy sound of a middle-aged viola player whose technique had gone to seed. That is your privilege, but I hear something else, something infinitely precious, something that brings middle-aged tears to my eyes each time I listen.

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Paul Hindemith plays the second movement of Der Schwanendreher in 1935, accompanied by Arthur Fiedler’s Sinfonietta:

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Lookback: how functional must good architecture be?

LOOKBACKFrom 2003:

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool aesthete who would dearly love to live in an exceptionally beautiful house and would willingly put up with a significant amount of nuisance value (i.e., leaky roofs) in order to do so…but not an unlimited amount. To put it as drastically as possible, I wouldn’t want to live in Fallingwater if it didn’t have indoor plumbing—and I might well think twice about it if there wasn’t a good place to hang my John Marin etching, either….

Read the whole thing here.

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Down there on a visit

10805567_10153015097042193_865244930675666077_nMrs. T and I left for Florida on December 28 and returned to Manhattan yesterday afternoon. We took an Amtrak sleeper car both ways, and the overnight trip home was as crowded and uncomfortable as its predecessor. Now that I’ve experienced two twenty-four-hour-long journeys in a Viewliner Standard Roomette that was theoretically built for two, I’m less than eager to do it all over again any time soon. Closets were made for storing clothes, not human beings, even those whom apartment life in New York City has long since accustomed to unnaturally close quarters.

Still, our voyage was tolerable and not without its modest pleasures. Since Amtrak’s Silver Meteor, incredibly and archaically enough, has no wi-fi service, I spent much of my enforced leisure time on board reading Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny (about which more another day) and most of the rest of it looking out the window of our compartment as America passed me by, unrolling itself in a tranquilizingly continuous stream of uneventful eventfulness. That’s the best part of train travel, and for me it never palls.

Early Morning, Stony Point. NYDuke Ellington was another devoted train traveler, and I wrote about why he liked it so much in Duke:

In addition to setting him apart from his sidemen—he slept not in a berth but a roomette—it provided him with “mental isolation…Folks can’t rush you until you get off.” For a touring bandleader whose occupation forced him to compose on the road, such privacy was a must. Ruth Ellington remembered seeing her brother “in a [railroad] siding somewhere in Texas, the heat at 110, the sweat pouring off him on to a piece of manuscript paper on his knee, catching up on something he wanted to finish.” Moreover, he loved the ever-changing sounds of train travel, above all the train whistles: “Especially in the South. There the firemen play blues on the engine whistle—big, smeary things like a goddam woman singing in the night.”

It was natural for such homely sounds to find their way into his work, most famously in “Daybreak Express,” a jazz counterpart of Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231 that the Ellington band recorded in 1933, ten years after the Swiss composer produced his own exercise in musical onomatopoeia. Like Pacific 231, “Daybreak Express” is an orchestral tour de force that reproduces the sounds of high-speed train travel with uncanny, almost eerie accuracy. Barney Bigard marveled at the way in which Ellington was able to “take an ordinary situation and put it into some music…We’d all be up at night gambling and we’d hear the whistle blow as we went over a crossing. Duke would hear all the same things. The only difference was, we were playing poker and he was writing music about that whistling.” He would do so on many other occasions. Two years later, for instance, he wrote Reminiscing in Tempo, whose rock-steady rhythmic patterns, he explained, were “all caught up in the rhythm and motion of the train dashing through the South.”

I wish I could say that Amtrak had done as well by me, but I didn’t write anything like a miniature masterpiece during either of our long train trips. I did, however, knock out a dozen-odd columns and essays while we were in Florida, several of them about the plays and musicals that I saw there, the seeing of which was the point of the exercise. I also saw several gorgeous sunsets, all of them on Sanibel Island, and rejoiced, as I always do, in the company of my beloved and indispensable Mrs. T. We are never more continuously together than when we are in Florida, and we never fail to enjoy our togetherness.

11001919_10153161503247193_6373186944984743091_nI flew back to New York two times to review shows and tried to do so twice more, stymied in both cases by the horrific winter weather that has been pulverizing so much of the country this year. I wasn’t sorry to escape most of it, and I already feel nostalgic for the warmth of Florida, as well as the treasured friends that we’ve made there in recent years. It somehow seems fitting that it started to snow—hard—less than an hour after we got back to our Manhattan apartment.

On the other hand, our stay in Florida was in certain ways unusually stressful, for Mrs. T experienced some health problems late in January that forced her to spend a few days in a Sarasota hospital. It’s no fun recuperating in anonymous hotel rooms, even in Florida, for which reason we’re gladder than usual to be home again, free of the nagging burden of sleeping in strange beds and living out of suitcases.

All that said, we’ll both miss the Sunshine State, and it pleases me greatly to know, as I announced in this space three weeks ago, that I’ll be going back there in May of 2016 when Palm Beach Dramaworks mounts Satchmo at the Waldorf, my first play. It happens that I’ve never been in Florida when it’s hot, and I suspect that it will be interesting (to put it delicately) to see what I make of the much-altered climate.

In any case, Mrs. T and I are done with Florida for the time being, and I’ve already jumped back onto the conveyor belt of my everyday life: I’m seeing four shows on and off Broadway this week, and I’ll be pulling on my winter coat to see all four of them. That’s my life, and I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it—but I can’t deny that a not-so-small part of me remains down south, sitting by the Gulf of Mexico, listening to the surf crash endlessly on the beach, and thinking about nothing in particular. That’s my life, too.

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Daybreak Express, a 1953 film by D.A. Pennebaker about train travel in New York. The musical score is Duke Ellington’s composition of the same name, recorded by his band in 1934:

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