Here’s part of what I’ve been up to since returning from Chicago last week:
• On Thursday Apollinaire Scherr and I paid a visit to New York City Ballet, where we saw an all-Tchaikovsky program consisting of two masterpieces (George Balanchine’s Mozartiana and Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2, also known as Ballet Imperial) and an agreeable second-tier work (Jerome Robbins’ Piano Pieces). The dancing was only just good enough–I hear that the company put in so much time rehearsing Peter Martins’ new Romeo and Juliet ballet that the rest of the spring repertory was more or less ignored–and the orchestra sounded frightful. To be sure, one can never waste time looking at Ballet Imperial, or talking to Apollinaire about dance, but beyond that it was an unmemorable evening.
• On Friday I watched Alain Resnais’ film version of Alan Ayckbourn’s Private Fears in Public Places, a play about which I raved in The Wall Street Journal when it was first performed in America in the summer of 2005:
Mr. Ayckbourn’s entry in the “Brits Off Broadway” festival currently underway at 59E59 Theaters is a more or less typical piece of Ayckbournian plot-juggling in which the lives of six lonely Londoners are made to intersect in a variety of unpredictable ways, some funny and others desperately sad. I can’t come any closer to describing the effect of “Private Fears in Public Places” than to say that it suggests Terence Rattigan revised by David Ives. Written in 54 crisp scenes (some of them wordless) and acted on a small stage divided into five playing areas, it moves with whirligig speed, glittering craftsmanship and an exhilarating dash of craziness, and when it’s over you won’t quite know how you feel, other than thoroughly entertained….
I can see how a superficial viewer might mistake it for a piece of commercial work. Don’t be deceived by the shiny surface of “Private Fears in Public Places,” though: it’s as serious as a broken heart.
Resnais’ film–whose French title, as it happens, is Coeurs–follows Ayckbourn’s play very closely, a fact that escaped the attention of most of its reviewers. (It’s surprising how few film critics are familiar with the literary sources of the films about which they write.) I don’t speak French and so can’t tell you how faithfully the dialogue has been translated, but the scene-by-scene structure of the film is more or less identical to that of the play. The big difference between the two is that Coeurs, unlike Private Fears, isn’t funny, and apparently wasn’t meant to be.
The most distinctive thing about Ayckbourn’s plays, as I observed in my Wall Street Journal review of the Manhattan Theatre Club’s 2005 revival of Absurd Person Singular, is the unsettling way in which they mix laughter and sorrow:
Ayckbourn is not infrequently mistaken for a commercial playwright. In fact, he’s a kind of poet, a craftsman of genius (he even wrote a book called “The Crafty Art of Playmaking”) whose riotously funny studies of the English middle class are streaked with melancholy and regret. In “Absurd Person Singular,” set in the kitchens of three different homes on three consecutive Christmases, you can see his method at its purest. Each act depicts a different phase in the lives of three newly acquainted married couples whose relationships are in flux. At the beginning of the evening, Jane and Sidney are trying desperately to impress their new friends, and at the end they’ve become the top dogs. In between is two hours’ worth of furious farce arising from the varied sorrows of the six characters. In the zaniest scene, Eva tries repeatedly but unsuccessfully to kill herself. You can’t help but laugh at her increasingly preposterous attempts–but you don’t forget for a moment that she’s not kidding.
Not so Coeurs. Perhaps it might seem funnier to a French-speaking viewer, but somehow I doubt it: Mark Snow’s score is unabashedly bittersweet, and the overall tone of the film is elegiac to a fault. It is, however, wholly convincing on its own dark terms, and I strongly recommend that you seek it out. (It’s currently playing on IFC’s on-demand channel in New York and will be released on DVD later this summer.)
• I also watched a kinescope of the original 1953 telecast of Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty. Videotape was still in the cradle back in the Fifties, and all three networks ran weekly drama anthology series broadcast live from New York. Most of the scripts were mediocre and are rightly forgotten, but a few of the better teleplays of the period, among them N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker, Rod Serling’s Patterns and Requiem for a Heavyweight, Horton Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful, Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, and Gore Vidal’s Visit to a Small Planet, were later adapted for Broadway and/or Hollywood and thus are still remembered.
Marty was filmed in 1955. It was the first low-budget indie flick to take Hollywood by surprise, winning the best-picture Oscar and grossing $5 million (it cost $340,000 to make). Alas, the film version, which starred Ernest Borgnine, wasn’t very good. Borgnine’s acting is likable but ordinary, while Chayefsky’s screenplay, to which he added a half-hour’s worth of additional scenes in order to make it long enough for theatrical release, is flabby. The original hour-long TV version, by contrast, is lean, direct, and characterful, and Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand, who play a pair of painfully plain New Yorkers looking for love, are so natural and unaffected that they scarcely seem to be acting at all. It’s easy to see why Marty, though it only aired once on network TV, made a deep and long-lasting impression on all who saw it.
If you go in for trivia, by the way, you probably already know that a half-century after appearing in the best-remembered live TV drama of the Fifties, Marchand made a similarly powerful impression on postmodern viewers when she played Tony Soprano’s mother. I have decidedly mixed feelings about the so-called Golden Age of Television, but some of it was and is worth celebrating, and it’s nice to know that one of its most talented actors lived long enough to do equally unforgettable work in the true Golden Age of series TV.
To be continued….