Just because: John Simon appears on The Odd Couple

TV CAMERA“Two on the Aisle,” a 1974 episode of The Odd Couple written by Mark Rothman and Lowell Ganz and directed by Jay Sandrich. In addition to Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, the cast includes John Simon, who plays himself:

(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: Nero Wolfe on science

INK BOTTLE“Mr. Wolfe said once that scientists should keep their findings strictly to themselves; by spilling it they just complicate things for other people.”

Rex Stout, The Father Hunt

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An eminent Victorian

In today’s Wall Street Journal drama column I have enthusiastic words for the Broadway revival of The Elephant Man. Here’s an excerpt.

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First “Side Show,” now “The Elephant Man”: This would seem to be Broadway’s Year of the Circus Freak. But while “Side Show” is a slick, sentimental musical that uses the story of a famous pair of conjoined twins to preach a progressive sermon about how it’s O.K. to be different, Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play about a congenitally deformed man whom Victorian England clasped to its collective bosom is a vastly more serious affair. Scott Ellis’ new production, which originated at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, is the play’s second Broadway revival, and while it wouldn’t have happened were it not for the remunerative presence of Bradley Cooper, the Sexiest Man Alive, it’s worth seeing anyway. Not only is Mr. Ellis’ staging distinguished, but “The Elephant Man” itself is by no means a mere tour de force for a good-looking actor.…

article-2544069-1AE0DAE500000578-919_634x565“The Elephant Man” is a fictionalized recounting of the life of Joseph Merrick (Mr. Cooper), who suffered from a rare condition that caused his skin to resemble the hide of an elephant and distorted his body in other horrifically unsightly ways. Spurned by his family, he spent four years in a workhouse, then submitted to being put on exhibition by crooked showmen. He was rescued by Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola), a surgeon who took him into the London Hospital and looked after him for the rest of his brief life. When Dr. Treves made a public appeal to raise funds for his care, the young man became a cause célèbre and drew the attention of England’s high society, for even though he was grotesquely disfigured, his mind functioned normally and he was emotionally sensitive.

Mr. Pomerance has turned his tale into a parable modeled on “Pygmalion.” Just as Henry Higgins, Shaw’s haughty professor of phonetics, endeavors to turn the grubby Eliza Doolittle into a “real lady,” so does the fictional Dr. Treves school the fictional Merrick in the priggish ways of middle-class respectability, revealing in the process that his own values are as false as the Christianity in which he feigns faith. (Merrick: “If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?” Treves: “I am sorry. It is just the way things are.”) That’s the point of “The Elephant Man,” whose author, like Shaw before him, holds conventional morality in contempt, going so far as to imply that Merrick might have been better off had he not fallen into the hands of a Victorian hypocrite like Treves.

While such notions are as fashionable today as they were in 1977, I take leave to doubt that any of the real people portrayed in “The Elephant Man,” least of all Merrick, subscribed to them. Nevertheless, Mr. Pomerance has used them as the basis for a play that is extremely smart, if sometimes heavy-handed….

Mr. Cooper, despite his relative lack of stage experience, proves to be a very good actor, one so fully submerged in his part that the audience at the preview I attended didn’t applaud his first entrance, immediately recognizable though he was. His performance is simple, direct and convincing in every way….

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Read the whole thing 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:
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (musical, PG-13, nearly 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)
172795aOn the Town (musical, G, contains double entendres that will not be intelligible to children, reviewed here)

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

CLOSING SOON ON BROADWAY:
Cabaret (musical, PG-13/R, all performances sold out last week, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
Once (musical, G/PG-13, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)
This Is Our Youth (drama, PG-13, closes Jan. 4, reviewed here)

CLOSING NEXT WEEK OFF BROADWAY:
The Seagull and Sense and Sensibility (drama, PG-13, playing in alternating repertory, closes Dec. 21, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY IN RED BANK, N.J.:
Camelot (musical, PG-13, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY OFF BROADWAY:
Our Lady of Kibeho (drama, PG-13, reviewed here)

CLOSING SUNDAY ON BROADWAY:
Love Letters (drama, PG-13, reviewed here)

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Books do furnish a (hotel) room

I’m the kind of person who, when he enters a house for the first time, is irresistibly drawn to its bookshelves. Rightly or wrongly, I assume that their contents (or lack of same) will reveal much about the occupant. This irresistible conditioned reflex operates even when I’m in a hotel room or other public place where books are on display. Yes, I know that they were probably bought by the foot from some books-as-decoration outfit, but I still find them fascinating to peruse.

dsc07624.JPG.814x407_defaultI flew down to West Palm Beach on Monday to see a show and give a couple of talks, and I opted to stay at Casa Grandview, a B&B in Grandview Heights, a wonderfully quaint historic district that is, like so many Florida neighborhoods, a glorious mishmash of random architectural styles. The front room of my cozy, comfortable suite, an old-fashioned bachelor pad that the amiable owners have dubbed “the Man Cave,” is dominated by a massive bookcase. No sooner did I settle in than I started examining its contents. Needless to say, I didn’t expect to find anything particularly interesting therein, but along with the usual titles by the ubiquitous likes of Dick Francis and John Grisham, it turns out that a very considerable number of the books in the Man Cave are…well, not quite what you’d expect to stumble across in a B&B.

Here are some of the less likely titles:

Catherine Drinker Bowen’s Yankee from Olympus: Justice Holmes and His Family

Short Novels of Colette

Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa

The Faulkner Reader

Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock

Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way

The Short Stories of Henry James, edited by Clifton Fadiman

John Keegan’s The First World War

Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie

1101490307_400John P. Marquand’s B.F.’s Daughter, So Little Time, Women and Thomas Harrow, and Your Turn, Mr. Moto

André Maurois’ Disraeli

Dorothy Parker’s Not So Deep as a Well: Collected Poems

C. Northcote Parkinson’s Parkinson’s Law

The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection

Sam Tanenhaus’ Whittaker Chambers

Carl Van Doren’s The Great Rehearsal

Yes, I’ll be more than glad to return to New York and Mrs. T—I always am—but between the books in the Man Cave and the tasty breakfasts cooked to order each morning, I’d be perfectly happy to spend a few more days by Casa Grandview’s pool, reading at random and basking in the Florida sunshine.

UPDATE: I learned at breakfast that the owner of Casa Grandview bought all of the books himself. We chatted about Marquand, James Gould Cozzens, and Nevil Shute as I ate my eggs Benedict. I’m definitely coming back here.

To read my 1987 Commentary essay about John P. Marquand, go here.

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Snapshot: Erroll Garner plays “Laura”

TV CAMERAErroll Garner plays “Laura” on an episode of Jazz 625, originally recorded by the BBC on Oct. 22, 1964. The bassist is Eddie Calhoun and the drummer is Kelly Martin:

(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: Rebecca West on mass culture

INK BOTTLE”There is no logical reason why the camel of great art should pass through the needle of mob intelligence; to consider the matter from the purely utilitarian point of view, an artist might do humanity more good than any other has ever done by work so complex that only the six cleverest men in his country could understand it, provided it was powerful enough to affect them.”

Rebecca West, The Strange Necessity

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Lookback: the phoniness of American Splendor

LOOKBACKFrom 2003:

What makes American Splendor so good is not its postmodern switching between “Harvey Pekar” the character and Harvey Pekar the bonafide on-screen weirdo himself–that aspect of the film borders on the cutesy–but the clarity and humor with which it portrays the grubby melancholy of lower-middle-class urban life….

At the same time, I think it should be pointed out that the “Harvey Pekar” of American Splendor is a semi-fictional character, and that a movie about the real Harvey Pekar might well have been even more interesting than American Splendor, if less touching. Yes, Harvey the celebrated author of autobiographical comic books and “Harvey” the fictional author of autobiographical comic books both spent a quarter-century working at crappy jobs at the Cleveland VA hospital, survived cancer, razzed David Letterman on camera, found love, and started a family. But the real Harvey Pekar is not simply some hapless record-collecting schlub from Cleveland who decided one day to write comic books about his working-class life. He is also a full-fledged left-wing intellectual–homemade, to be sure, but the shoe still fits–who reviews books for the Village Voice and does regular commentaries on NPR….

Read the whole thing here.

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