Another American in Paris

This week’s Wall Street Journal drama column is devoted in its entirety to Palm Beach Dramaworks’ revival of My Old Lady. Here’s an excerpt.

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Israel Horovitz, who in the ‘60s and ‘70s was one of New York’s most prolific and talked-about playwrights, is now better known in France, where more than 50 of his plays have been translated and produced, than in his native land. In “My Old Lady,” first seen off Broadway in 2002 and now being performed with delicacy and grace by Palm Beach Dramaworks, he tacitly acknowledged this unjust state of affairs by writing a play set in Paris that he calls “a love letter thanking France for giving me my French life.”

Angelica Page, Tim Altmeyer & Estelle Parsons“My Old Lady” is a three-hander whose plot is set in motion by Mathias (Tim Altmeyer), a failed American novelist with a weakness for drink who inherits a luxurious but crumbling Paris apartment from his otherwise indifferent father. The apartment, as he learns when he travels to France to sell it, has been occupied for the past half-century by two iron-willed Frenchwomen who haven’t the slightest intention of quitting the premises, a vinegary spinster named Chloé (Angelica Page) and her mother (Estelle Parsons), a worldly nonagenarian who is given to speaking her mind with alarming directness: “I’m 90. Subtlety is something that does not interest me.” It emerges that Mathilde, Chloé’s mother, was intimate with Mathias’ father, and that Mathias and Chloé are both unhappy and unfulfilled.

Nothing especially surprising happens thereafter, any more than it does in a Mozart symphony. You know as soon as they meet that Mathias and Chloé will fall in love, and that Mathilde will do what she can to help them overcome the formidable conflicts of temperament that stand between them and the possibility of happiness. The magic of “My Old Lady” lies in the preternatural skill with which Mr. Horovitz propels his beautifully drawn characters toward what you trust will be their predestined fates….

The 87-year-old Ms. Parsons came to grief on Broadway last season in a poor play called “The Velocity of Autumn” that closed after 16 performances. Fortunately, that disaster did nothing to diminish her amazing energy and forcefulness. Watching her on stage in Florida, I couldn’t help wishing that New York audiences could see how authoritative she still is. But “My Old Lady” is not a one-woman show, and this production wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does were the other roles not so perfectly cast….

Though Mr. Horovitz recently turned “My Old Lady” into a film starring Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith, it’s more effective onstage, and this production underlines the play’s sadness without diluting the leavening touches of comedy that make it so satisfying….

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Read the whole thing here.

The trailer for Israel Horovitz’s 2014 film version of My Old Lady, starring Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith:

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Christmas for hipsters

Capitol311In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I touch on a seasonal theme. Here’s an excerpt.

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Christmas songs are beloved for all kinds of reasons, only some of which are related to their artistic merit. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” which tops ASCAP’s annual list of the most frequently performed holiday songs, is irresistibly catchy, but it’s still a super-square piece of earwormy tinsel. If you love it, the reason is doubtless because the eupeptic lyrics remind you of the merry Christmases of your childhood (assuming that you had any). If, on the other hand, you’re a musician, your feelings about Christmas songs may reflect other, less immediately obvious priorities. I love “Winter Wonderland” because my mother sang it to me at bedtime, not because it contains a super-cool key change. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that I asked her to sing it every night because it changes keys, even though my five-year-old self didn’t yet know what that meant.

This isn’t to say that we aren’t responsive to words. Jazz musicians, for instance, have a special place in their hearts for Dave Frishberg’s “The Difficult Season,” in part because Mr. Frishberg (who is himself a much-admired jazz singer and pianist) captures in his lyrics a feeling that most of us have had at one time or another: “We each have our reason for singing a lonely song/And every December, it seems, the blues is our only song.” But it also has a lovely tune, and the songs that musicians like best are usually the ones in which the music is as memorable and individual as the words.

That’s why so many musicians are partial to a pair of holiday-themed songs that date from the mid-‘40s but remain eternally fresh. Ask a jazzman to play “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and you’re likely to get a freezingly fishy stare in return. But if you ask for “The Christmas Song” or “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” your request will be honored with genuine pleasure. Of all the Christmas songs written in the 20th century, those are the ones that in my experience are most commonly cited as favorites by professional musicians….

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Read the whole thing here.

Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to Margaret O’Brien in Meet Me in St. Louis:

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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.

Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, all performances sold out last week, closes Mar. 29, reviewed here)
article-2544069-1AE0DAE500000578-919_634x565The Elephant Man (drama, PG-13, contains partial nudity, all performances sold out last week, extended through Feb. 22, reviewed here)• A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, nearly all performances sold out last week, 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)

Once (musical, G/PG-13, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
This Is Our Youth (drama, PG-13, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)

The Seagull and Sense and Sensibility (drama, PG-13, playing in alternating repertory, reviewed here)

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Almanac: T.H. White on friends and acquaintances

INK BOTTLE“I have always wanted to be somebody’s best friend, but never succeeded. I have no friends, only acquaintances: You have no idea how curious it is to live one’s whole life like a cat: or have you?”

T.H. White, letter to L.J. Potts (courtesy of Levi Stahl)

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Lookback: Ronald Reagan, correspondent

LOOKBACKFrom 2003:

I’ve been looking through Reagan: A Life in Letters, a book whose publication will no doubt startle a lot of people unaware that Ronald Reagan was the most prolific presidential correspondent of modern times. I’m not talking about the kind of “letter” produced in batch lots by a team of secretaries equipped with autopens, either. Of the 1,100 letters in this 934-page book, some 80% were written by hand, another 15% dictated. The editors had “over 5,000 genuine Reagan letters” to choose from, and they estimate that another 5,000 or so have yet to surface.

Put aside for a moment your opinion of Reagan (either way) and think instead about the implications of those numbers. Speaking as a biographer, I can assure you that this is an extraordinarily large number of letters to have been written by any public figure, much less one who wasn’t a professional writer–though Reagan, as it happens, spent a number of years writing his own speeches, radio commentaries, and syndicated columns, and would also have been perfectly capable of writing his own memoirs without assistance had he been so inclined. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other 20th-century president who left behind so large a body of informal writing, and few who wrote as much in any medium. Theodore Roosevelt, probably Nixon, possibly Calvin Coolidge (who was, believe it or not, the best by-his-own-hand presidential prose stylist in modern times), and…who else? Nobody comes to mind….

Read the whole thing here.

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Perfect storms

I spent much of last week in West Palm Beach, where I saw a show, gave two talks, and paid a quick visit to the Norton Museum of Art, which has mounted an unassuming yet noteworthy exhibition of forty works on paper called Master Prints: Dürer to Matisse. The prints, all of which are owned by discreetly anonymous lenders, were well chosen—I’ve never seen so many first-class Rembrandt etchings in a single gallery—and in immaculate condition.

132504_2419516I was especially interested in a 1954 etching by Giorgio Morandi that I’d only seen reproduced in catalogues. You can’t fully appreciate the texture and depth of a great etching until you see it “in the flesh,” so to speak, and this one ranks among Morandi’s finest. Having once tried and failed to buy a Morandi etching at auction, I was briefly incapacitated by envy of the unknown owner, but I soon got over it and marveled at the quiet beauty of “Still Life with Nine Objects.”

To quote what I wrote in the Washington Post ten years ago about an exceptionally impressive Morandi exhibition:

The effect of this show is wildly disproprtionate to its minuscule size: six oil paintings and two works on paper, all of them still lifes and none in any obvious way imposing. Yet as you look at how the greatest Italian artist of the 20th century painstakingly arranged and rearranged a dozen bottles, bowls and boxes on a table and painted them over and over again, you find yourself whisked out of the grinding noise of everyday urban life and spirited away to a place of intense stillness. It’s as if a soft-spoken man had slipped discreetly into a small room open to the public, whispering life-changing confidences to the fortunate few who visit him there.

9250_10151311642912193_555046088_nOne of the reasons why I wanted to see Master Prints: Dürer to Matisse is that Mrs. T and I also collect prints, albeit on a far more modest scale. The day after I flew back to New York, I picked up our newly framed copy of Childe Hassam’s “Storm King” and brought it home. I’d originally planned to hang it directly above John Twachtman’s “Dock at Newport,” but Mrs. T, who has a sharp eye, gave me a better idea, and so “Storm King” now shares a wall with “Storm Over Manhattan,” a 1936 lithograph by Louis Lozowick (reproduced at right) for which she has a special liking.

On Sunday I read an essay about materialism in which Arthur Brooks made the following observation:

In the realm of material things, attachment results in envy and avarice. Getting beyond these snares is critical to life satisfaction. But how to do it?…

First, collect experiences, not things.

Material things appear to be permanent, while experiences seem evanescent and likely to be forgotten. Should you take a second honeymoon with your spouse, or get a new couch? The week away sounds great, but hey—the couch is something you’ll have forever, right?

Wrong. Thirty years from now, when you are sitting in rocking chairs on the porch, you’ll remember your second honeymoon in great detail. But are you likely to say to one another, “Remember that awesome couch?” Of course not. It will be gone and forgotten. Though it seems counterintuitive, it is physically permanent stuff that evaporates from our minds. It is memories in the ether of our consciousness that last a lifetime, there for us to enjoy again and again.

Of course I see what Brooks is getting at, and up to a point I agree with him (though I’d be more inclined to take his reflections on the problem of materialism seriously had he not gone well out of his way to explain how they were inspired by “a recent trip to India”). Over the weekend Mrs. T and I went to Ecce Bed and Breakfast, the rural retreat where we spent our honeymoon, and we expect that both of those blissful experiences will last us a lifetime. On the other hand, Arthur Brooks also sounds like the kind of person who’s never really looked at a painting. Buying an awesome lithograph is not the same thing as buying an awesome couch. Sometimes things are experiences.

10702171_10152860653952193_2186824435226339917_nIn 2004, a year after I started buying works on paper, I wrote an essay for Commentary in which I described the experience of living with art:

Whatever my reservations—and no collector is ever entirely satisfied—I am happy with the Teachout Museum just as it is. Not only is it a joy to behold, but its beauties have had the beneficial effect of making me want to spend less time rattling around Manhattan, fulfilling the hectic duties of a freelance critic, and more time sitting in my living room, communing with the works of art I have so carefully assembled. Whether it will help me to live longer is an open question, but collecting art, even on a modest scale, has definitely made my interior life richer than ever before.

While the Teachout Museum has doubled in size since I wrote “Living With Art,” my feelings about it remain unchanged. I would never dream of pretending that it’s a bigger deal than it is, but when I returned to our apartment after freshening my eye by spending an afternoon looking at Master Prints: Dürer to Matisse, I felt quite proud of our little collection. Yes, Mrs. T and I put it together on a shoestring, but it was assembled with painstaking thought and much love, and I can’t imagine anyone getting more life-changing pleasure out of the art on their walls than we do from ours. If this be materialism, make the most of it.

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