Mutual detraction

In today’s Wall Street Journal I report on two new plays, Billy & Ray and Disgraced. Here’s an excerpt.

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Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder wrote the screenplay for “Double Indemnity” together in 1943, then spent the rest of their lives griping about one another. Chandler found Wilder’s breezy, bossy, self-assured manner so grating that he briefly quit the picture, later claiming that working with the younger man “was an agonizing experience and has probably shortened my life.” As for Wilder, he was equally exasperated by Chandler’s touch-me-not gentility, and since he outlived his co-author by four decades, he got the last word: “Apparently he had resigned because, while we were sitting in the office with the sun shining through, I had asked him to close the curtains and I had not said please.”

B0K3bkPCUAApuXJ.jpg-largeNow Mike Bencivenga has transformed their edgy but productive collaboration into an Off-Broadway play called “Billy & Ray,” and he’s persuaded Garry Marshall, who is best known for such big- and small-screen projects as “Pretty Woman” and “Laverne and Shirley,” to direct. It’s a neat idea on paper, but Mr. Bencivenga has come up with a glib, sitcom-flavored show that works well enough on stage—much of the second act is actually quite involving—but will still strike those who already know how “Double Indemnity” got written as something of a lost opportunity….

Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” which won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama, has arrived on Broadway after successful runs in Chicago and at Lincoln Center Theatre. It’s about Amir (Hari Dhillon), a deracinated Pakistani émigré who renounces Islam as “a backward way of thinking,” moves to New York, marries a white painter with an acutely inflamed case of liberal guilt (Gretchen Mol) and becomes a hotshot litigator at a Jewish law firm, at which point he suddenly realizes that his Muslim roots go far deeper than his wife and colleagues ever suspected.

This is a genuinely provocative premise for an issue-driven play, and Mr. Akhtar deserves much credit for grappling honestly and forthrightly with what in other hands could easily have become a mealy-mouthed exercise in can’t-we-all-get-along difference-splitting. Unfortunately, his dramaturgy isn’t as impressive as his nerve. Not only do his characters spend far too much of the evening making speeches to one another, but every “surprise” is telegraphed so far in advance of its eventual arrival that you find yourself getting actively impatient for the reveals….

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To read my review of Billy & Ray, go here.

To read my review of Disgraced, go here.

My favorite speech from Billy Wilder’s 1944 film version of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, featuring Edward G. Robinson:

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Closing our browsers

In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I consider how the shift from bookstore to online book buying is changing American culture. Here’s an excerpt.

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On a recent trip to Chicago, I spent an hour wandering through the Seminary Co-Op, the University of Chicago’s much-loved independent bookstore, which claims to have more than 100,000 titles in stock at any given moment. I bought three books during my visit. One of them, Stephen Parker’s “Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life,” had been on my literary radar screen since August, when I read the Times Literary Supplement’s review. Not so the others, Todd Decker’s “Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz,” which came out in 2011, and “Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert,” a monograph by Catherine Tackley that was published two years ago. I make a point of keeping up with new books about film, dance and jazz, but somehow I hadn’t heard of either one.

CT  met-book-parade 1120 mhWhat’s the point of this anecdote? Just this: It was solely because I visited the Seminary Co-Op that I bought those two books. Yet it had been at least two years, if not more, since I’d set foot in a large brick-and-mortar bookstore. Nor can I remember the last time that I went into a record store of any size. Like a fast-growing number of Americans, I now do virtually all of my book and record buying online. It’s cheaper and infinitely more convenient to click a few keys and be done with it.

That’s the good part. Here’s the bad part: Nowadays I buy a book or record only because I’m specifically looking for it. But when I went to the Seminary Co-Op, I browsed purely for the sake of browsing, and in so doing made two happy discoveries. Had I not stumbled across “Music Makes Me” and “Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert” purely by chance, I doubt I would ever have learned of their existence, much less bought and read them.

In 2006 I noted in this space that online stores like Amazon were “seeking to replace the personal touch…with ‘preference engines’ that automatically generate computerized lists of ‘other items you might enjoy’ each time you make a purchase.” Eight years later, I can report that these marketing tools haven’t made the slightest bit of difference in my own life. So far as I can recall, I’ve never bought an “other item you might enjoy” from Amazon, not even once.

For me, then, preference engines have not replaced browsing. But neither has anything else. As a result, I no longer browse. What’s more, I suspect that my experience is widely shared. Browsing, it appears, will soon be as dead as dial phones. That constitutes a huge cultural shift, one whose unintended consequences are not yet clear. Still, I’m sure that they’re going to be significant, and if I had to guess, I’d say they’ll be harmful….

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Read the whole thing here.

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Coming attraction

Terry-Teachout-107w4qyIf you live in or near Waco, Texas, a city of which I am greatly fond, you might want to know that I’ll be giving a pair of lectures this coming weekend at Baylor University, an institution of which I’m no less fond.

On Saturday I’ll be talking about Whit Stillman’s movies at a conference called “Faith and Film,” and on Monday I’ll be delivering Baylor’s Laura Blanche Jackson Endowed Memorial Lectureship in World Issues. I don’t usually give speeches about foreign policy, but it happens that this particular lecture, “The Story of Ambassador Satch: Louis Armstrong, Jazz, and International Relations,” deals with a subject about which I think it would be fair to say that I do know a little something.

Alas, the Stillman lecture is part of a symposium that is now booked solid, but my Armstrong lecture is open to the public. It will begin at seven p.m. at Baylor’s Paul W. Powell Chapel. For more information, go here.

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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.

BROADWAY:
Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
The Country House (drama, PG-13, closes Nov. 9, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Love Letters (drama, PG-13, closes Feb. 1, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, most performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)
4434_Town859469On the Town (musical, G, contains double entendres that will not be intelligible to children, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
This Is Our Youth (drama, PG-13, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
Indian Ink (drama, PG-13, closes Nov. 30, reviewed here)

CLOSING SOON IN SPRING GREEN, WIS.:
American Buffalo (drama, PG-13, closes Nov. 8, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY OFF BROADWAY:
The Fatal Weakness (drama, PG-13, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY IN NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONTARIO:
When We Are Married (comedy, PG-13, reviewed here)

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Almanac: Balzac on genius

INK BOTTLE“Men give way before the power of genius, they hate it and try to blow upon it because it takes without sharing the plunder, but they give way if it persists; in short, they worship it on their knees when they have failed in their efforts to bury it under the mud.”

Honoré de Balzac, Père Goriot

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Lookback: on not being able to write fiction

LOOKBACKFrom 2004:

Whatever the reason, I’ve reached the age of forty-eight without once successfully completing a work of fiction (or unsuccessfully, for that matter), and though it’s not unheard of for incautious writers to unexpectedly extrude a novel in the middle of life, I doubt it’ll happen to me. I regret it bitterly, just as I regret never having learned to speak another language, but by now I’m reasonably content to stick to the cards in my hand and do my best to play them as well as I know how….

Read the whole thing here.

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