About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts
in New York City (with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)
Tuesday, January 2, 2007
"Much of the Pain and Pleasure of mankind arises from the conjectures which every one makes of the thoughts of others; we all enjoy praise which we do not hear, and resent contempt which we do not see."
I don’t feel like looking back today—I’ve been doing more than enough of that in recentpostings. Suffice it to say that 2006 was scary and happy in like proportions, with the latter finally edging out the former.
This year, like last year, will be busy, and since I haven't any shows to see until Sunday, I’ve decided to vanish into the woods of Connecticut to catch up on my writing. Except for the daily almanac and the usual theater-related postings on Thursday and Friday, I don’t plan to blog for the rest of the week. (If I change my mind, kindly give me hell.) I don’t know what Our Girl has in mind, but I’ll leave it to her.
If you've never lived in New York City, you probably don't realize how small most apartments here are. I dearly love my little home, but it's very cozy, and I share it with two dozen works of art, several hundred books, and three thousand CDs. As of this week, I've also been sharing it with a month's worth of accumulated snail mail. I took out ten garbage bags of trash yesterday, and I'm about to haul another four bags downstairs (I live on the third floor, which is quite a trip for a heart patient). My shelves are full. My drawers are full. My closets are full. Hence this desperate plea. From here on out it's a zero-sum game: I can't keep anything new without throwing away something old.
To be more specific:
• If you send me a CD without asking first, I won't listen to it.
• If you send me a book without asking first, I won't read it.
• If you send me unsolicited press releases, I'll toss them in the nearest wastebasket.
Forgive me for being so blunt, but I simply can't cope anymore. I know you'll understand.
From the second sentence of his I read, I've been a devoted admirer of Michael Ruhlman. When I discovered him I was at a low moment, in dire and specific need of a fix of good writing. Last fall, you see, I had to read four books in damn short order and write a group review of them for a newspaper. These were all nonfiction books, personal narratives that each addressed, in one way or another, the subject of marriage. They were an interesting lot in many ways, but the first two I read were not exactly music to the ears, stylistically speaking. The first was workmanlike, earnest—it got the job done, but it bumped and bruised my sensibilities along the way. The next was so overwritten and overwrought I actually flung it across the room once or twice in despair. (Didn't do any good.)
So my expectations were damped down flat when I moved along dutifully to the third in the set, a book of which I knew nothing going in. It was with resignation that I opened it, the resignation to continue plowing through—but I discovered almost instantly that, in this case, I would be not be plowing but gliding. With Ruhlman's House: A Memoir I was recognizably in the hands of a genuine writer, and surprised by the extent to which a stiff dose of turgid prose can make you forget what that even feels like. Here are the opening sentences that made the clouds part—they don't smack you upside the head with their brilliance, David Foster Wallace-style, but they're finely crafted in an understated way that seemed then, and does now, attuned to the needs of the reader:
It was our house now—I had the key in my pocket. I steered into the empty driveway for the first time; until this moment Donna and I had been visitors, and we felt as welcome as a threat. But all that was over. They were gone at last. The old brick house on the shady street was empty.
"As welcome as a threat": after the clotted prose I'd so lately been subjected to, the clean elegance of the phrase made my heart leap up. It may not seem like much, but it's right, and it struck me as a clear if small sign that I was in good hands. Other such signs followed, and the book proved a fascinating original. It tells of buying and rehabbing a Victorian house in Cleveland Heights and mounts an eloquent defense of the American suburbs and, yes, meditates on marriage and its settings. By virtue of writing that seems always to have the reader's best interests in mind, as well as the particular demands of its subjects, a hybrid book that could all too easily have been a mundane or messy melange turns out to be wonderfully inviting, rewarding, and elegant. I know that calling a writer a consummate professional will sound to some ears like backhanded praise, but this book made me feel—as I wrote in my review—that in the very best sense, professionalism is a form of kindness. What I primarily felt while reading this book was well taken care of.
One of the unlikeliest but most winning chapters of House simply narrates a tour the Ruhlmans took of their prospective house. They were starting to get serious about buying and engaged the services of a home inspector. Through physical description but mainly through uncannily capturing the way he talks, Ruhlman makes this mildly odd character jump straight off the page.
With what seemed like pleasant anticipation, he then said, "Let's march on down to the basement, shall we?"
"You like the basement," I said.
"It's where I spend most of my time," he said, taking long, duck-footed strides toward the back door. "Most of a house's mechanical systems—plumbing, electric, heat—originate and extend out through the house from there. It's where the foundation of the house is visible."
"The foundation is one of the main things you inspect."
He stopped and turned at me. "The entire house rests on…the foundation."
"Right," I said.
The inspector's bare yet cordial tolerance of his clients' ignorance, here and throughout the chapter, is funny and endearing. I doubt most writers would have hit on him for a likely subject, and the good results reminded me a bit of my favorite M.F.K. Fisher essay, the one about the very exacting waitress ("she's a funny one"). This chapter also catches Ruhlman sneaking into a mostly anomalous book a taste of the subject he more typically writes about: men at work.
In his books about cooking, The Making of a Chef and The Soul of a Chef, and his book about pediatric heart surgeons, Walk on Water, Ruhlman delves into the working lives of specialists who have to perform under stressful circumstances at incredibly high levels of expertise and manual skill. It's a fascinating fascination. I ordered all three books before I had finished reading House and ripped through The Making of a Chef as soon as it arrived. I'm now near the end of Walk on Water, a book about surgeons who operate on heart defects in children and infants, a line of work that on paper looks just about impossible. And I've already taken a sneak peek into the next in this queue, The Soul of a Chef. As someone who has been known to while away an afternoon reading cookbooks without the slightest intention of chopping or heating anything, I'm having to resist the temptation to try to read both this and Walk on Water at the same time.
It's been a while since I went on a one-author tear this way, and I'm really enjoying it. All of the features of my first encounter with Ruhlman's work that hooked me on it have been borne out in these other books: the smart, modest, incisive writing, and the author's knack for generating fascination and granting comprehension. Reading these books reminds me of seeing a great documentary film, offering the same combination of a new window on some corner of the world quite remote from your own and aesthetic pleasure. I'm looking forward to his about-to-arrive Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing (though not quite as much as a certain fishy friend who is himself an inveterate salter, smoker, and curer and will no doubt make his thoughts known in the fullness of time). In the meantime, read this lively interview Ruhlman did with Dan Wickett a while back and, of course, read the books.
It’s Friday, and I’m back in town and booming and zooming (but sensibly, you understand!). In today’s Wall Street Journal I review two off-Broadway shows, In the Continuum and the Atlantic Theater’s double bill
of Harold Pinter’s The Room and Celebration:
What is political theater? Sometimes, as in the case of such relentlessly preachy exercises in agree-or-you’re-evil propaganda as “Guantanamo” or “The God of Hell,” the answer is painfully clear. While these plays may be presented in an artful way, they typically use art as little more than a means to a political end, and thus tend to be both unserious and unpersuasive. On the other hand, it’s perfectly possible to create a serious work of art that is informed by politics. Heather Raffo did it in “Nine Parts of Desire,” her beautiful one-woman show about life in Iraq, and now Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter have done it with “In the Continuum,” a play whose subject matter—the effect of AIDS on black women in Africa and America—would seem at first glance to be wholly unpromising.
AIDS is notorious for bringing out the worst in issue-oriented playwrights, which is why I passed up “In the Continuum” when it opened at 59E59 last October. On paper it sounded like a parody of everything I like least about political theater, and it was only at the emphatic urging of friends whose taste I trust that I caught the show, which has since transferred to the Perry Street Theatre, one of Off Broadway’s most attractive performing spaces. They swore it was a must-see event, and sure enough, they were right….
Harold Pinter gave up playwriting for preaching many years ago. The most recent of his sermons, the hate-America-first rant he delivered last month after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, was so cringe-making that it undoubtedly led many younger playgoers—including more than a few who share his extreme views—to wonder whether he was ever any good. To them I suggest a trip to the Atlantic Theater, whose double bill of two one-act Pinter plays, “The Room” and “Celebration,” has been extended through Jan. 21. It isn’t perfect, but it’s still a worthy introduction to the Pinter who matters….
No link, as usual, so kindly go to the nearest newsstand and fork out a dollar for a copy of the Journal, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with instant access to the complete text of my review (along with lots of other art-related stories). It’s a fabulous deal—try it!
Not only do I feel great, but I'm behaving sensibly, too, so much so that I actually kept my promise and spent the whole week going through my my snail mail and cleaning up my apartment. (The old, unregenerate me would have done it all in a single day, then gone out to a nightclub.) Yes, I wrote two Wall Street Journal pieces, saw two off-Broadway shows, and updated the Top Five section of the right-hand column, but I also spent plenty of time doing plenty of nothing. Hooray for me!
Now here's a sneak preview of my next "Sightings" column, "Sue and Be Doomed," which will appear in the "Pursuits" section of Saturday's Wall Street Journal:
What would you do if your favorite radio station stopped playing your favorite music? In Detroit, seven irate listeners sued. They’ve filed a class-action suit against WDET-FM, the public-radio station of Wayne State University, claiming that the NPR affiliate committed fraud by encouraging them to make donations in support of locally produced weekday music shows, then cancelling those shows and replacing them with national public-affairs programs.....
As always, there's lots more where that came from. See for yourself—buy a copy of tomorrow's Journal and look me up.
That's all, folks. I'll be back on Monday, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and properly rested. See you then.
I used to think it might be fun to be
Anyone else but me.
I thought that it would be a pleasant surprise
To wake up as a couple of other guys.
But now that I've found you,
I've changed my point of view,
And now I wouldn't give a dime to be
Anyone else but me.
What a day,
Fortune smiled and came my way,
Bringing love I never thought I'd see,
I'm so lucky to be me.
What a night,
Suddenly you came in sight,
Looking just the way I'd hoped you'd be,
I'm so lucky to be me.
I am simply thunderstruck
At the change in my luck:
Knew at once I wanted you,
Never dreamed you'd want me, too.
I'm so proud
You chose me from all the crowd,
There's no other guy I'd rather be,
I could laugh out loud,
I'm so lucky to be me.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green, "Lucky to Be Me" (music by Leonard Bernstein)
Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated each Thursday. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
BROADWAY: • Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter, strong language, one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• Chicago* (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
• Doubt* (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
• The Light in the Piazza* (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, extended through July 2, reviewed here)
• Sweeney Todd* (musical, R, adult situations, strong language, reviewed here)
• The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee* (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
• The Woman in White (musical, PG, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
The Metropolitan Opera has revived its 1997 production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, directed by Mark Lamos, designed by Robert Israel, and conducted by James Levine. I covered the premiere for the New York Daily News nine years ago. Here’s the last paragraph of my review:
"Wozzeck" is one of the most difficult scores in the operatic repertoire, and James Levine and his peerless orchestra brought it off with breathtaking aplomb. But this is the kind of production in which all the pieces fit together so snugly that to single anyone out for special praise is almost to miss the point. As I left the theater Monday with the fervent cheers of the audience ringing loudly in my ears, I felt certain the Met had never done anything better than this amazing "Wozzeck," and its spell has not yet worn off as I write these words.
I don’t write many reviews like that, especially about the Met, but I meant every word of this one, and my enthusiasm was confirmed when I saw the production a second time two years later (accompanied by Our Girl, who was visiting New York that week and remembers the evening well). As a rule, the Metropolitan Opera isn’t the place to go for great drama, but the Lamos-Israel Wozzeck is a shining exception to the rule. I rank it with the Met’s productions of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites (directed by John Dexter) and Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades (directed by Elijah Moshinsky) as one of the most theatrically compelling experiences of my operagoing life.
As for the opera itself, regular readers know I’m no fan of Austro-German expressionism, but Wozzeck is one of the supreme masterpieces of twentieth-century opera, a work so overwhelmingly compelling as to overwhelm any possible objections. I simply can’t imagine anyone who loves theater failing to respond to it, especially in a production as gripping as this one.
I took a houseguest to see Wozzeck the other day, and I’m delighted to say that it once again lived up to my expectations. Alas, the opera has always been box-office poison in New York—most of the Met's regular patrons prefer fluffier fare—which is why the company revives it only at lengthy intervals. This is the first time Wozzeck has been seen there since 2001, and the management has scheduled just four performances, the last of which will be this Friday at eight p.m. Tickets are available for as little as $36. Go if you possibly can—I’m sure you won’t have another chance for some time to come.
For more information, or to order tickets, go here.
"The welcome one gives to the success of one's friends can certainly be genuine, but once one becomes established in the arts it is rarely without a degree of ambiguity. In the last analysis you are both competing for a limited supply of attention."
Michael Blakemore, Arguments with England: A Memoir
The new, easy-going me is only just starting to grapple with the monstrous pile of snail mail that accumulated between the time I went into the hospital and last Friday, when I returned to New York. My guess is that it will take me most of the week to get caught up in a sane manner rather than a crazy one, so don't expect too many postings from me until next Monday.
Just in case you're wondering, I feel terrific. I've already started taking daily walks around the Central Park reservoir (about which more later) and have lost a great deal of weight. It's a start!
"Up till now I had relied as an actor on my small store of sophistication and assurance, and had got nowhere. Only now when I was making use of the most vulnerable and naked aspects of myself had I come up with something of real value. I began to see that notwithstanding its occasional triumphs, its conspicuously public success, there was at the heart of an actor's life an aspect of public confession, something perplexed and even grieving."
Michael Blakemore, Arguments with England: A Memoir (courtesy of Chris Hartman)
I'm blogging from the apartment of Our Girl in Chicago, who is sitting in her Eames chair (yes, she has an Eames chair!), looking shockingly beautiful as Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two twang away on the stereo (didn't I tell you she was cool?).
I arrived in Union Station this morning after a deeply satisfying trip on the Lake Shore Limited, spent the day looking at paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago (about which more later), and now am making ready to go eat tapas and see a performance of A Little Night Music, chauffeured and accompanied by OGIC. One or both of us will report later tonight, or maybe tomorrow. In the meantime, it's nice to be in the same room as my superlative co-blogger.
More anon. Hope you're all having a Happy New Year.
Is anyone else out there finding themselves driven headlong from the nice, easy, addictive comforts of Law and Order reruns by TNT's unbearable new ad campaign for its forthcoming remake of The Goodbye Girl? In case you haven't been exposed (i.e., you aren't one of the cult), the advertisement comes in the guise of a full-length music video in which Hootie and the Blowfish (an act I'd managed until now, through sheer dumb luck, to overlook entirely) perform the regrettably catchy title song from the original 1978 movie in painfully bombastic fashion.
I haven't had the stomach to actually count, but the video-ad seems to appear two or three times per episode of L&O, including once at the pivotal moment before the verdict is read. To quote a more quotable show (L&O is many things, but a fount of witty repartée isn't one of them), "It's a nightmare. It's a plague. It's a nightmare about a plague." And it just may be strong enough medicine to cure me and my similarly addicted young professional female friends of a seriously powerful dependency (at least until January 18th, when the movie's 3-night run, and presumably the ad push, end). I don't think any of us believed medicine that strong existed, but this corrosive cocktail of Hootie and Neil Simon appears to be it.
Happy new year to all! Back in Chicago after a long, pleasant visit with my family, I am sizing up the obstacle course of duffels, overnights, and shopping bags spanning my apartment, and reluctantly accepting that these items aren't going to unpack themselves and scurry under the bed in an organized fashion. I have my work cut out for me before this place will be fit for the likes of my illustrious co-blogger, who arrives in mere hours.
Christmas was lovely (I'm wearing one of my favorite gifts as I type this, and in fact have barely taken it off for seven days now) but my aesthetic intake was pretty much limited to picking from among the sorry array of holiday wrapping paper on offer this year. Yep, I do consider myself a connoisseur of the stuff. Someday when life is perfect, somebody will pay me money to make up designs for wrapping paper and neckties. In the meantime, my personal cultural drought comes to an end tomorrow, when Terry rolls into town and lets me tag along with him to see a lot of plays and, who knows, maybe some art and cinema into the bargain. However we end up occupying ourselves, it's a good bet you'll read about it here.