A farceur’s false flag

Today’s Wall Street Journal drama column is devoted in its entirety to Westport Country Playhouse’s revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Things We Do for Love. Here’s an excerpt.

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Alan Ayckbourn has no better institutional friend in America than Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse, which has staged nine of his 78 plays to date. The latest one is the company’s current production, “Things We Do for Love,” a four-character comedy from 1997 that is rarely performed in this country and which I saw for the first time ever on Saturday. The reason why it doesn’t get done much is obvious: “Things We Do for Love” calls for a three-story set, a feat of scenic trickery beyond the means of most regional troupes.

Fortunately, Westport Country Playhouse, whose 578-seat auditorium is handily equipped with an orchestra pit, is up to the challenge, and John Tillinger’s production reveals “Things We Do for Love” to be a play of no small emotional complexity—cunningly disguised as a who’s-been-sleeping-in-my-bed farce….

628x471Let’s start with the hijinks-encrusted plot. Barbara (Geneva Carr) rents out her basement and upstairs bedroom, the first to Gilbert (Michael Mastro), a wimpy, lower-middle-class handyman, and the second to Nikki (Sarah Manton), Barbara’s younger friend and former classmate, and Hamish (Matthew Greer), Nikki’s hunky fiancé. That’ll give you an inkling of what happens next: Barbara and Hamish end up in the sack, much to the horror of Nikki and the dismay of Gilbert, who harbors a hopeless crush on his landlady.

The results are shriekingly funny—at first. But Mr. Ayckbourn’s characters aren’t stick figures, nor have they earned the abject humiliation that is the engine of traditional farce. Barbara is a fortyish spinster with a sharp tongue who lives alone and hates it, while Nikki is a cheery little twit who goes in for men who beat her up….

Mr. Tillinger, who has previously staged Mr. Ayckbourn’s “How the Other Half Loves,” “Relatively Speaking” and “Time of My Life” at Westport, knows well that his sad farces don’t work unless they’re played yardstick-straight. If you telegraph the comic punches, you’ll end up with forced, uncomfortable laughter. That never happens in “Things We Do for Love.” Ms. Carr’s performance, in particular, is quite unusually subtle, far more than you’d expect in a play whose climax is a wild explosion of slapstick violence….

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Read the whole thing here.

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Apocalypse later

In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column, I comment on the last-minute settlement of the Metropolitan Opera’s labor negotations. Here’s an excerpt.

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The show goes on. Instead of locking out the Metropolitan Opera’s musicians and stagehands, Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, agreed to a still-to-be-ratified settlement with their labor unions that will allow America’s biggest opera company to open its 2014-15 season on schedule.

Peter Gelb 2.jpgBeyond expressing relief that the Met didn’t have to scuttle its season, few observers have said much about the specifics of the settlement. Presumably this is because they were not officially released to the press. But they were widely leaked, and it isn’t hard to figure out how Mr. Gelb and the unions managed to get to yes. What’s more, it appears that the terms to which the general manager agreed stand in sharp contrast to what he’d argued was necessary to pull the Met out of its financial quicksand. The company, he claimed, was galloping toward the abyss, and only the most drastic reforms could save it. “No cuts means no Met,” he said….

I claim no inside knowledge of the Met, but it looks to me as though one of two things has happened: Either Mr. Gelb exaggerated the company’s plight as a negotiating tactic, or the unions ate his lunch….

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Read the whole thing here.

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Almanac: Philip Larkin on form and the poet

INK BOTTLE“I read poems, and I think, Yes, that’s quite a nice idea, but why can’t he make a poem of it? Make it memorable? It’s no good just writing it down! At any level that matters, form and content are indivisible. What I meant by content is the experience the poem preserves, what it passes on. I must have been seeing too many poems that were simply agglomerations of words when I said that.”

Philip Larkin, Paris Review interview, Summer 1982 (courtesy of Patrick Kurp)

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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, nearly all performances sold out last week, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Matilda (musical, G, all performances sold out last week, reviewed here)
Les Misérables (musical, G, too long and complicated for young children, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, reviewed here)

OFF BROADWAY:
The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)

IN NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONTARIO:
Arms and the Man (comedy, G/PG-13, closes Oct. 18, reviewed here)
The Sea (black comedy, PG-13, closes Oct. 26, closes Oct. 12, reviewed here)
When We Are Married (comedy, PG-13, closes Oct. 26, reviewed here)

IN SPRING GREEN, WIS.:
The Doctor’s Dilemma (comedy, G/PG-13, closes Oct. 3, reviewed here)
53e7ad0fe55b6.preview-300The Seagull (drama, G/PG-13, closes Sept. 20, reviewed here)

CLOSING THIS WEEKEND IN GARRISON, N.Y.:
The Liar (verse comedy, PG-13, closes Sunday, reviewed here)
Othello (Shakespearean tragedy, PG-13, closes Saturday, reviewed here)
Two Gentlemen of Verona (Shakespearean comedy, PG-13, closes Friday, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY IN MADISON, N.J..:
The Alchemist (verse comedy, PG-13, reviewed here)

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Almanac: Solzhenitsyn on superficiality

INK BOTTLE“Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic diseases of the twentieth century, and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, commencement address, Harvard University (June 7, 1978)

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Second time’s a charm

298ca073292837f9527c4d1273aedf86_posterI narrated Project Shaw’s staged reading of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple last year, and had such a good time that I’ve happily agreed to make a repeat appearance on September 29. I’ll be sharing the stage of Symphony Space with Jefferson Mays and J. Smith-Cameron, two superlatively talented actors whom I admire without reservation, for a performance of Village Wooing, a comic two-hander (Shaw called it a “comedietta for two voices”) written in 1933. My colleagues, needless to say, will be doing all the acting, while I content myself with reading the stage directions out loud.

Symphony Space is at 95th Street and Broadway. The show starts at seven p.m. To order tickets or for more information, go here.

To read Village Wooing, go here.

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Lookback: an imaginary dinner with Satchmo, George Balanchine, and H.L. Mencken

LOOKBACKFrom 2004:

Over dessert, the talk would likely turn without prompting to women. Balanchine and Armstrong were both married four times, and though Mencken only tied the knot once, he had his fair share of girlfriends, going so far as to write a book called In Defense of Women. Between the three of them, I dare say quite a bit of light would be shed on the ever-intriguing subject of romance and its discontents….

Read the whole thing here.

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Almanac: Karl Popper on tolerance

INK BOTTLE“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.”

Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies

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