Too much of a good thing

The Wall Street Journal has given me an extra drama column today to report on two important New York revivals, You Can’t Take It With You and Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink. Here’s an excerpt.

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Nothing dates faster than a joke, so it’s always worth reflecting on why certain stage comedies from an earlier time have aged well. “You Can’t Take It With You,” the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman play about a Depression-era family of full-bore eccentrics, opened on Broadway in 1936, ran there for 838 performances and continues to be performed regularly by students and amateurs, though the size of its 19-person cast makes professional revivals too costly to be common. Now it’s back on Broadway for the first time since 1984 in a version directed by Scott Ellis and starring James Earl Jones—and it’s still funny….

You-Cant-Take-It-With-You-618x400Kaufman and Hart invented or perfected many of the now-formulaic devices that power TV sitcoms, and one of them, the crazy family with a single sane member, is displayed to well-tooled effect in the saga of the Vanderhofs, whose contentedly haphazard daily lives are concisely summed up in the first paragraph of the stage directions: “This is a house where you do as you like, and no questions asked.” No less seductive, though, is the fantasy that they collectively embody: Not only do they follow their bliss to the uttermost limits of absurdity, but the rent gets paid and the pantry filled without their having to hold down nine-to-five jobs…

This revival of “You Can’t Take It With You” will likely hit big, and up to a point it deserves to do so, since it’s thoroughly good-humored and is performed with zesty energy. But it’s flawed nonetheless, mainly because Mr. Ellis has encouraged his cast to be self-consciously wacky, having forgotten, as he also did in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s 2012 revival of “Harvey,” that the characters in a farce don’t know they’re funny….

“Indian Ink,” Tom Stoppard’s 1995 play about the effects of colonialism on the inner lives of an English poetess (Romola Garai) and an Indian artist (Firdous Bamji), is currently receiving its first high-profile New York production courtesy of the Roundabout Theatre Company, which has mounted it Off Broadway as a pendant to the upcoming Broadway revival of Mr. Stoppard’s “The Real Thing.” It’s a provocative character study, though the past-meets-present double-helix structure feels at times like a rough draft for Mr. Stoppard’s “Arcadia.”…

Carey Perloff, who also directed the 1999 U.S. premiere of “Indian Ink” at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre, has done right by a tricky script. Likewise her cast, well led by Mr. Bamji, Ms. Garai and Rosemary Harris, who is superlatively good…

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Read the whole thing here.

The trailer for Indian Ink:

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Fast company

10626883_10152802654562193_5245945214826284268_nProject Shaw, which puts on monthly staged readings of the plays of George Bernard Shaw, presented Village Wooing, a 1933 “comedietta for two voices,” at Symphony Space on Monday night. The production, directed by David Staller, Project Shaw’s resident mastermind, featured Jefferson Mays, who is currently starring on Broadway in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, and J. Smith-Cameron, who starred in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s universally admired 2013 revival of Juno and the Paycock and now appears on Rectify. Also on hand was a narrator who read Shaw’s stage directions out loud for the benefit of the audience. That was me.

While this wasn’t my first Project Shaw gig, it was the first time that I’d appeared on stage with just two other people—and what people! If you’ve read what I’ve written about Mays and Smith-Cameron in The Wall Street Journal, you’ll know that I consider them to be two of the very best actors in America, or anywhere else. When David asked me to take part in Village Wooing, the thought briefly occurred to me that to say yes would thus be inviting first-degree embarrassment, seeing as how I’m the furthest thing from an actor. But I figured that it’d be worth suffering any amount of embarrassment in return for the opportunity to watch them work up close, so I took a very deep breath and accepted his invitation.

It won’t surprise any regular playgoer to hear that my colleagues acquitted themselves stupendously well in Village Wooing, enough so that we all admitted to dreaming of the possibility that they might someday co-star in a fully staged production of Shaw’s poignant one-act comedy about a shipboard encounter and its surprising aftermath. As far as I’m concerned, though, the real show took place at the four-hour rehearsal for Monday’s performance. It was bewitching to watch two such brilliantly intelligent actors seize hold of the root of the theatrical matter with breathtaking quickness.

tn-500_7.jpg.pagespeed.ce.5UZYxex6WKAs for me, I wasn’t nervous, just excited, perhaps because I didn’t have all that much to do. Whatever the reason, I read my lines as efficiently and effectively as I could, and the rest of the time I just sat there and goggled, both at the rehearsal and at the performance. I’m not sure I was supposed to laugh in front of the audience, but I couldn’t help myself. I told J. (that’s what she’s called) that performing with her felt like taking a ride in a self-driving car that did all the work for me, which made her giggle.

After the show she introduced me to her husband, Kenneth Lonergan, the author of This Is Our Youth, Lobby Hero, and The Starry Messenger and the writer-director of Margaret and You Can Count on Me. I stammered something extravagantly admiring, he said something properly gracious, and I went on my bedazzled way.

The theater has given me many thrills in the course of my eleven-year run as a drama critic, opera librettist, and (most recently) playwright, enough that I wouldn’t want to try to rank them. That said, I have no doubt that I’ll long remember Village Wooing as one of the biggest and best.

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Snapshot: James Earl Jones talks about his childhood

TV CAMERAJames Earl Jones talks about growing up in Mississippi in a 1969 CBC interview. Jones is the star of the new Broadway revival of You Can’t Take It With You, which opened this week:

(This is the latest in a series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Monday and Wednesday.)

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Almanac: Lord Byron on irony

INK BOTTLEThe other, deep and slow, exhausting thought,
And hiving wisdom with each studious year,
In meditation dwelt, with learning wrought,
And shaped his weapon with an edge severe,
Sapping a solemn creed with solemn sneer:
The lord of irony,—that master-spell,
Which stung his foes to wrath, which grew from fear,
And doomed him to the zealot’s ready hell,
Which answers to all doubts so eloquently well.

Lord Byron, Childe Herold’s Pilgrimage

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Lookback: on schadenfreude

LOOKBACKFrom 2004:

I try not to drop foreign words or phrases into my writing (in fact, I told a member of my criticism class yesterday to remove C’est vrai and Gesamtkunstwerk from the piece of his that I was editing). Once in a while, though, there’s no good alternative, and schadenfreude is one of those rare exceptions to my personal rule. To derive malicious joy from someone else’s troubles is, if I may be so bold as to say it, precisely the sort of concept for which one would expect the Germans to have coined a word, and it seems to me altogether fitting that we should have taken it over without change….

Read the whole thing here.

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Almanac: Dostoevsky on sarcasm

INK BOTTLE“Sarcasm: the last refuge of modest and chaste-souled people when the privacy of their soul is coarsely and intrusively invaded.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground

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Entry from an unkept diary

Dickens_0• A cyberfriend writes to remind me that when Charles Dickens visited America for the first time in 1842, he was mobbed wherever he went, an experience that he described in a letter to John Forster, his friend and biographer:

I can do nothing that I want to do, go nowhere where I want to go, and see nothing that I want to see. If I turn into the street, I am followed by a multitude. If I stay at home, the house becomes, with callers, like a fair. If I visit a public institution, with only one friend, the directors come down incontinently, waylay me in the yard, and address me in a long speech. I go to a party in the evening, and am so inclosed and hemmed about by people, stand where I will, that I am exhausted for want of air. I dine out, and have to talk about everything to everybody. I go to church for quiet, and there is a violent rush to the neighbourhood of the pew I sit in, and the clergyman preaches at me. I take my seat in a railroad car, and the very conductor won’t leave me alone. I get out at a station, and can’t drink a glass of water, without having a hundred people looking down my throat when I open my mouth to swallow. Conceive what all this is! Then by every post, letters on letters arrive, all about nothing, and all demanding an immediate answer. This man is offended because I won’t live in his house; and that man is thoroughly disgusted because I won’t go out more than four times in one evening. I have no rest, or peace, and am in a perpetual worry.

tumblr_m5jk5byFeJ1r8b83ro1_1280I suppose a modern-day reader might regard this as a nice problem to have, but what strikes me most forcibly about Dickens’ dilemma (if you want to call it that) is that it was a novelist who was having it. Today it’s unimaginable that any writer would be treated that way, whether in America or elsewhere. Our “rock stars” are…well, rock stars. Or, more likely, movie and TV stars. We simply don’t confer mass celebrity on writers nowadays. If I had to guess, I’d say that Ernest Hemingway was the last novelist of consequence whom a considerable number of Americans would have been at all likely to know by sight—he was, in fact, famous enough to be paid to endorse products—and he died more than a half-century ago.

Is this loss of status a bad thing? Very possibly not. The poet L.E. Sissman, about whom I wrote not long ago, believed that serious writers should keep to themselves:

In a word, the serious writer must take serious vows if he is to concentrate on his chief aim. A vow of silence, except through his work. A vow of consistency, sticking with writing to the exclusion of other fields. A vow of ego-chastity, abstaining from adulation. A vow of solitude, or at least long periods of privacy. A vow of self-regard, placing the self as writer before the self as personality.

He may have been right, too, though I’ve expressed reservations about it. Nevertheless, I know that I wouldn’t ever want to be enough of a celebrity to draw crowds in the street, though I readily confess to getting a kick out of being (very, very occasionally) recognized there. David Bowie said it: “I think fame itself is not a rewarding thing. The most you can say is that it gets you a seat in restaurants.” So does a reservation, and nobody bothers you while you eat.

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Stephen King appears in an American Express commercial:

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D.G. Myers, R.I.P.

X5vEr8LD_400x400I grieve to report the passing today of my friend D.G. Myers, a critic of great force and penetration who also blogged eloquently about literature and, more recently, his own terminal cancer.

I made brief but admiring mention of David two weeks ago in this essay about L.E. Sissman. Yesterday I learned that his time was short and wrote this tribute:

David Myers is a tough critical customer. He takes no reputations at face value. All he cares about is the quality of the art object itself, and he applies his standards rigorously and unflinchingly. But that makes him sound like something other than what he is, a thoroughly decent man of deeply humane values who looks to literature for that which great art is uniquely well suited to provide: beauty, clarity, consolation, truth. I in turn have long looked to him for critical guidance, confident that whatever he recommends will be worth reading. We don’t always agree, but I know that I can always take him seriously. That knowledge is a blessing.

It will be published next week in an online Festschrift that is being prepared by Patrick Kurp and to which I will link as soon as it goes on line.

Farewell, David. You were a brave and inspiring soul.

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Jimmy Rushing sings “Goin’ to Chicago Blues” with the Benny Goodman Orchestra in 1958. I sent this video to David when he was having a very bad day a few months ago. It buoyed his spirits then. May it comfort his friends now:

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