E.M. Forster, “The Poetry of C.P. Cavafy”
Archives for May 2018
In today’s Wall Street Journal I review Signature Theatre’s off-Broadway revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Our Lady of 121st Street. Here’s an excerpt.
* * *
Stephen Adly Guirgis’ progress as a playwright is one of the happiest theatrical stories of the past decade. From the flabby, sophomoric antics of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” in 2005 to the taut discipline of “Between Riverside and Crazy,” which won and deserved a Pulitzer in 2015, Mr. Guirgis has come a long, long way, all of it in the right direction. So it’s interesting to look back at “Our Lady of 121st Street,” the 2002 play that helped establish him as an up-and-comer, and reflect on how he got from there to here. “Our Lady” has just been revived by Signature Theatre in an off-Broadway production directed by Phylicia Rashad, whose acting credentials need no repeating but who is now trying her hand as a stage director (this is her New York debut). The results, if uneven, are mostly pleasing, and the play itself, of which much the same could be said, comes through with all sails billowing….
The title character of “Our Lady of 121st Street,” a Harlem nun, is never seen. Literally: Sister Rose died shortly before the play gets underway, and her corpse has been stolen from the funeral home where it was being viewed prior to burial. While what happens to it is a plot development that I must keep under wraps, it’s not the point of the play, which consists of a string of blackouts in which we meet her mourners, most of whom were once her students and all of whom have come to her wake to send her off in style….
The problem with “Our Lady of 121st Street,” as you surely already suspect, is that it’s essentially plotless. No matter how funny you are, it’s tough to keep a plotless comedy in motion—especially a serious one. Mr. Guirgis has since learned this lesson, and one of the reasons why “The Motherf**ker With the Hat” and “Between Riverside and Crazy” are so superior to “Our Lady” is that they are meticulously plotted exercises in dramatic storytelling in which the laughter is as much situation-driven as character-based. It’s a tribute to his inborn talent that he manages to make “Our Lady” work in spite of its aimlessness, and it’s no less a tribute to this well-cast revival that everybody in it, from the marvelous Quincy Tyler Bernstine right down the roster, makes a sharp and strongly flavored impression….
* * *
Read the whole thing here.
The trailer for Our Lady of 121st Street:
“Without education we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously. The latest fads of culture, the latest sophistries of anarchism will carry us away if we are uneducated: we shall not know how very old are all new ideas.”
G.K. Chesterton, “Our Note Book,” Illustrated London News, December 2, 1905
It’s been quite a while since Mrs. T and I last paid a joint visit to a museum, but we felt we couldn’t afford to miss American Post-Impressionists: Maurice & Charles Prendergast, which is up through June 10 at the New Britain Museum of American Art. Maurice Prendergast, who died in 1924, is one of my favorite turn-of-the-century American artists, but nowadays his work is for the most part known only to specialists, and I’ve never had the opportunity to see more than one or two of his paintings at a time. This exhibition, drawn from the permanent collections of the NBMAA and the Prendergast Archive & Study Center at the Williams College Museum of Art, is by way of being a full-scale joint retrospective of the work of the Prendergast brothers—it contains a hundred-odd works of various kinds—and you’ll come away from it with a clear sense of Maurice’s exceptional quality. (Charles was a talented artist, but he wasn’t in his brother’s league.)
Mrs. T and I have similar but by no means identical tastes in art, so it surprised us that we singled out the same piece, an 1899 glass-and-ceramic-tiles mosaic called “Fiesta Grand Canal, Venice,” as our best-in-show pick. That said, “American Post-Impressionists: Maurice & Charles Prendergast” is full of striking work, and there’s nothing in it that isn’t worth seeing and pondering. Maurice was one of the first American painters to be strongly influenced by Cézanne, but his mature style was entirely original and immediately distinctive. He is also the only painter of importance I can think of who was deaf, and I can’t help but wonder whether that fact, and the resulting social isolation that his handicap imposed on him in his later years, had something to do with certain aspects of his style, among them his habit of painting vividly colored crowd scenes in which the individual figures are all faceless. Were they faceless because they were silent to him? I wonder.
The NBMMA is a small, attractively housed Connecticut collection to which Mrs. T and I are both partial, and it would be worth visiting even if it weren’t hosting so fine a show. Small museums very often hang limited-edition prints of exceptionally high quality that are rarely on display in larger, better-stocked institutions, and we were tickled to discover that a handsome impression of one of our own pieces, a 1972 lithograph by Fairfield Porter called Broadway, was proudly hung in a first-floor gallery. Yale University Press was kind enough to allow me to reproduce Broadway on the dust jacket of A Terry Teachout Reader, and it pleased me no end to see it at the NBMMA. It was as if we’d unexpectedly bumped into an old friend in one of the galleries.
We were tickled in a different way when we arrived at the museum and discovered that having attained the august age of sixty-two, both of us now qualify for the NBMMA’s senior discount. Needless to say, I don’t think of myself as a senior citizen—I rarely feel much older than fifty or so, and most people seem to think I’m quite a bit younger than I look at first glance—and it had never before occurred to me that the time had finally come when I could get two dollars knocked off the price of admission to an art museum. So here it is at last, the distinguished thing, I muttered to myself as I stepped up to the front desk and confessed to being…well, middle-aged.
That same night I ran across the following passage in LaBrava, my favorite Elmore Leonard novel, in which a young photographer and an even younger beauty-product saleswoman are speculating on the age of a retired film-noir movie star whom they have just met:
“How old you think she is?”
Franny said, “Well, let’s see. She looks pretty good for her age. I’d say she’s fifty-two.”
“You think she looks that old?”
“You asked me how old I think she is, not how old I think she looks.”
If you think that exchange pulled a deep sigh out of me, you’re right.
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.
• Angels in America (two-part drama, R, alternating in repertory, closes July 15, most shows sold out last week, reviewed here)
• The Band’s Visit (musical, PG-13, all shows sold out last week, reviewed here)
• Dear Evan Hansen (musical, PG-13, all shows sold out last week, reviewed here)
• Hamilton (musical, PG-13, Broadway transfer of off-Broadway production, all shows sold out last week, reviewed here)
• The Iceman Cometh (drama, PG-13, virtually all shows sold out last week, closes July 1, reviewed here)
• My Fair Lady (musical, G, all shows sold out last week, reviewed here)
• Saint Joan (drama, PG-13, closes June 10, reviewed here)
• Three Tall Women (drama, PG-13, all shows sold out last week, closes June 24, reviewed here)
• Travesties (serious comedy, PG-13, closes June 17, reviewed here)
The latest episode of Three on the Aisle, the twice-monthly podcast in which Peter Marks, Elisabeth Vincentelli, and I talk about theater in America, is now available on line for listening or downloading.
In this episode, Peter, Elisabeth, and I discuss a topic that is increasingly driving the theatrical conversation in New York and elsewhere, the notion that certain older shows, perennially popular though they continue to be, have become dated in a way that makes them…well, politically incorrect:
This week starts with “problematic” shows, an expression used to describe the golden-age musicals My Fair Lady and Carousel, which are currently enjoying well-received revivals on Broadway and show how one can update this type of material either with tiny cuts and adjustments (as in Carousel) or via directorial decisions (the ending of My Fair Lady). Vincentelli points out that while O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh is usually not described as similarly problematic, she agrees with New York magazine critic Sara Holdren that maybe it should be….
Next up is an interview segment in which we talk to Jack Cummings III, artistic director of Transport Group, the highly original and highly regarded New York troupe whose revival of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke is currently running off Broadway. Jack talked to us in detail about how Transport Group came into existence, and about its ongoing struggle to stay afloat in an environment that is increasingly hostile to small, innovative theater companies.
As usual, we wrap up the podcast by discussing recent productions, in New York and elsewhere, that we’ve seen and liked.
To listen, download the episode, read more about it, or subscribe to Three on the Aisle, go here.
In case you missed any previous episodes, you’ll find them all here.