Culture Vulture: BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY, Christine Ebersole, IDA, and LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

January 25, 2015

1.22.15 Stephen Adly Giurgis, last seen on Broadway with The Motherfucker with the Hat, rises in my estimation with every new play he writes. The general description of Between Riverside and Crazy makes it sound, as Mr. David Zinn quipped, like a sitcom starring Doris Roberts and Fyvush Finkel: an intransigent old guy battles to hang on to his huge rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. The actual play is much darker and deeper than that. The intransigent old guy is Walt Washington, aka Pops, a recently widowed black ex-cop (played not by Fyvush Finkel but by the magnificent Stephen McKinley Henderson, veteran of many August Wilson plays) engaged in a years-long lawsuit against the NYPD after being shot by an off-duty cop. Pops shares his apartment with his ex-con son Junior (the always-great Ron Cephas Jones, such a master of understatement that he can look like he’s doing nothing), Junior’s bodacious girlfriend Lulu (Rosal Colon), and Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar), a friend of Junior’s fresh out of jail and trying to stay clean and sober. I can’t think of anybody who writes better dialogue for these kinds of contemporary urban characters – it’s energetic, funny, profane, and Stan Mack-like in its lifelike verisimilitude, right up there with Wilson and Mamet. And like those artists, he writes big messy great roles that actors love to fling themselves into, especially the kind of actors who make up the LAByrinth Theater Company. But beyond the living-room sitcom veneer of the play lie deceptive mythological and literary depths. If you think you’re watching a strictly naturalistic play, it can seem wrong that Walt’s old partner, Detective O’Connor (Elizabeth Canavan), and her fiancé Lieutenant Caro (Michael Rispoli), are two white people who show up to load up the plot with problems in act one and then return in act two to magically take them away. But the way Giurgis maneuvers them – and a ring that turns out to figure heavily in the plot – indicates that we’re dealing with something grander than kitchen-sink realism.

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It’s not a stretch to find traces of both King Lear and Shylock in Pops. And I haven’t even mentioned the Church Lady and her impact on Pops’ life (she is played by the ferocious Liza Colon-Zayas, above with Henderson, one of LAByrinth’s most valuable assets). Many surprises, many rewards. I loved the show, which ran last year to rave reviews at the Atlantic Theater Company and has come back for a second run at the Second Stage, in a production well-staged by Austin Pendleton with a tricky, effective set designed by Walt Spengler.

Andy wasn’t as crazy about the play as I was (he enjoys referring to it as Between Broadway and Bonkers, and our friends Judy and Bea had mixed feelings as well, but we had a vigorous and enlightening conversation about it over dinner afterwards at Nizza on Ninth Avenue.

1.23.15 I love seeing Christine Ebersole perform, but I didn’t love her new show, “Big Noise from Winnetka,” at 54 Below. I don’t really need to hear her sing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Landslide,” or “Woodstock” – anybody can sing those songs. I don’t really need to hear her sing gospel or “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball.” And I wasn’t crazy about hearing her sing a club version of “The Revolutionary Costume of the Day” so fast that the clever lyrics got lost in the mix. I think it’s cool that her family is multiracial – a bond with NYC’s First Family she acknowledged through a convoluted story – but I didn’t really need to have her bring her older son onstage to tell a rambling self-involved story and sing a so-so song.

christine-ebersole_original-2013
In plays and musicals, Ebersole has proven to be a smart and nuanced comic actor, and previous cabaret acts have featured better, less familiar material. I was happy that at least she ended the show singing “Will You,” one of the two gorgeous ballads she introduced in the musical Grey Gardens, which she sings like no one else can.

Dave and George liked the show better than I did – they’d never seen her before. Afterwards, we came back to my house and watched the Netflix DVD of Ida, the fantastic low-key Polish film nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award. It may seem weird that this small, quiet film about a young nun on the verge of taking her vows in 1961 would also get an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. But the striking cinematography is the major pleasure of the film – it’s shot in black and white, at odd angles, with the actors almost always off center or low in the frame, the camera never moving (until the very end of the film) so it’s one meticulously composed shot after another.

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We watched the DVD extra Q&A interview with director Pawel Pawlikowski, who explained that their DP got sick and had to drop out of the production after the first day of shooting and he had no choice but to go with young camera operator Lukasz Zal, who was 29 and looked 19 but who contributed to making a film that inevitably invites comparisons to Dreyer and Bresson is its concentrated lighting and imagery. The movie is streamable on Netflix and definitely worth watching for many reasons, including the two leading performances. Agata Trzebuchowska, who plays the title character, has never acted before; Agata Kulesza, who plays the very interesting character of her aunt, a Communist former state prosecutor, is a renowned Polish stage actor.

1.24.15 Let the Right One In was an amazing, beautiful 2008 Swedish film – a vampire story not like any other. It’s not something you would automatically expect the National Theatre of Scotland to adapt to the stage, but I’ll see anything staged by John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett, the guys who created The Black Watch, Once, The Ambassador, and a bunch of other terrific shows.

let the right one in
Adapted for the stage by Jack Thorne, Let the Right One In made for some fun penny-dreadful theatrical effects and a lot of creepy tension. I’d forgotten about the whole love story between the vampire Eli (played by the suitably unusual Rebecca Benson) and Oskar, a perennial bullying victim (Cristian Ortega). But ultimately I’m not sure this ranked as an especially necessary stage production. I like going to St. Ann’s Warehouse and hanging out afterwards in Dumbo. We had a good meal at Superfine and then came home and listened to some albums by Olafur Arnalds, the Icelandic musician who composed the lovely, ominous original score for Let the Right One In.

I also spent a couple of evenings last week devouring Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words, a book put together by Canadian broadcasting personality and folk musician Malka Marom, who interviewed Joni for the first time in 1973 around the time of Court and Spark and then again in 1978 around the time of Mingus. Recently she decided to make a book out of these intimate conversations and met with Joni again to fill in the blanks. There’s not a lot of news or major revelations (Michelle Mercer’s Will You Take Me as I Am had more of those), but Joni Mitchell is almost always fascinating in interviews — she’s pretty uncensored and unfiltered talking about other people, especially people she dislikes or who piss her off, but she’s also unafraid to talk very specifically and engagedly about her work, about music, writing, painting, and poetry. Aside from a couple of great quotes I’ve already posted on my blog, I tucked away little bits of trivia — her story about meeting Mae West at a New Year’s Eve party in Los Angeles at Ringo Starr’s house, and the time she met Nina Simone: “She came running through the shopping centre calling my name, ‘Joni Mitchell! Joni Mitchell!’ And she came up to me and grabbed me. She’s a big woman, swung me off the ground, kissing me, going “‘Ethopia’, girl! ‘Ethiopia’!” Swinging me around in circles, this big barrel of woman.”

joni in her own words


R.I.P.: Joe Franklin

January 25, 2015

The low-rent talk-show host Joe Franklin was kind of a joke but definitely a legend. I feel some residual warmth toward him because he had me on his show once, to talk about my second book, Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face (a collaboration with photographer Susan Shacter). I sat on the sofa in a loud teal shirt from International Male and chatted with two very young unknown actors about breaking into show biz. Joe Franklin’s death actually conjures fond memories of Marilyn Lipsius, the late great publicist who was a friend of mine and who very generously set up my appearance and hired a car to take us out to the studio in New Jersey where the show was shot. I have the show on video somewhere, but I no longer have a machine that plays VHS tapes. Perhaps just as well.

joe franklin


Good stuff online: interview with the director of DICK: A DOCUMENTARY

January 24, 2015

When I met Brian Fender many years ago, he had completed one short film about LGBT youth (xyQ), and he was just beginning the process of making a documentary about men talking about their penises. I heard from him occasionally over the years and knew that he’d been diagnosed with ALS, a seriously debilitating illness. So I was pleased to read this EdgeMedia article online by my friend Killian Melloy to learn that a) Brian has completed his new film, DICK: A Documentary and that b) he is hanging in there, despite all the difficulties of living with ALS. In this interview, you can see a trailer for film, read about the making of it, watch xyQ in its entirety, and learn about the nonprofit organization Brian is funneling his energy into called Artists Lend Support.

brian fender


Quote of the day: GENIUS

January 22, 2015

GENIUS

The way Wayne Shorter works is the difference between a genius and a talent. The talent will come in, a great player. He’ll listen to my music, he’ll write out the chord changes, he’ll notice how weird they are and he’ll go, “Oh, this is deceptively simple.” Then he’ll figure out a part. He’ll play it. The first time, it’ll be a little rough. The second time, it’ll be better. The third time, he’s not gonna deviate. You’ll get up to take four, and I’ll ask him for take five, thinking maybe he’ll put a variation on it, but he won’t. He’s got his part, he’s done it, and he’s giving you a dirty look like, “Don’t you have it already?”

A talent is pretty good to work with.

A genius like Wayne is always exploring, so he’s gonna be more inconsistent. He’s gonna be all over the place. Because he’s going into new territory. The great things nearly always come on the edge of an error. What comes after the error is spectacular. So if you are hung up on the error, you missed the magic.

Joni Mitchell In Her Own Words (interviewed by Malka Marom)

joni mitchell wayne shorter


Food for the Joybody: cultivating self-compassion

January 20, 2015

Last week my teacher at the Iyengar Institute mentioned a concept new to me: the eight limbs of yoga. Buddhist practice has so many numbered constructs – the four thises, the five thats – it’s hard to keep track of all of them. When he named the eight limbs that Patanjali outlined in the Yoga Sutras, I recognized many of them by name. I’d just never heard them organized this way. Apparently there is a particular hierarchical order, similar to Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of human needs.

The eight limbs of yoga begins with the lower branches, the yamas and the niyamas, which guide moral behavior. The five yamas refer to conduct toward others and counsel doing no harm through stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, or taking what is not freely given. The five niyamas refer to self-discipline and advocate for cleanliness, contentment, tapas, self-study, and surrender to God – or, for people who are allergic to the concept of God, celebration of the spiritual. Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy, therefore there’s no dogma, no insistence on faith or belief. That’s why Buddhism has no commandments but rather guidelines for ethical behavior.

(A word about tapas. Tapas is an important concept – the word is translated variously as austerity, discipline, and “zeal for yoga.” I like this explanation: “Tapas can mean cultivating a sense of self-discipline, passion and courage in order to burn away ‘impurities’ physically, mentally and emotionally, and paving the way to our true greatness.” In tantric practice, tapas is associated with “sitting in the fire” and expanding your tolerance for impatience, frustration, imperfection, and all the other obstacles that inevitably occur on the path to serenity.)

After the yamas and the niyamas, higher on the tree of yoga you find asana and pranayama, which are the practices we associate with yoga classes – postures and breathing practices. Positioned above them are three limbs related to meditation: pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (focus), and dhyana (state of meditation). Finally, at the top of the tree is Samadhi, bliss, union with the divine. 8-limbs-of-yogathe-eight-limbs-of-yoga---yog-sundari-ulkup29dMy teacher brought up the eight limbs of yoga to introduce the theme of grounding oneself in the basics. Before you get to bliss, you have to learn to focus. In order to learn to focus, you have to practice the asanas and the breathing. In order to ground the physical practice, it helps to be grounded in ethical behavior and self-discipline. That’s easier said than done. For the contemporary urban person, it’s pretty easy to find a class or a structure within which to study yoga postures, breathwork, and various forms of meditation. But where do you get instruction, guidance, and support for ethical behavior and self-discipline? Throughout much of time and throughout much of the world, organized religion provides those services – that’s the strong appeal of membership in a church, a synagogue, a mosque, to have consistent access to a community and to teachers who have spiritual authority. Organized religion can offer comfort by providing answers to the timeless questions of what to do, how to behave, what to believe. The shadow side of organized religion is the potential for rigidity, fundamentalism, and intolerance of difference or questioning. Most people in my world live outside the culture of organized religion, even those who are deeply committed to spiritual practice.

I know from personal experience and from my therapy practice how valuable and yet how elusive the Buddhist concepts of svadyaya and santosha can be – self-study and contentment. Cultivating a spiritual practice requires a considerable amount of initiative, self-awareness, and willingness to take an honest and compassionate look at yourself. I like the phrase that comes from the recovery movement’s 12 Steps: “taking a searching moral inventory.” The dilemma that comes up when conducting such an inventory is that inevitably you bump into all your imperfections, your failings, your mistakes. It’s all too easy to get stuck there, identified only with your deficits, and to live with a constant barrage of harsh self-judgments and the feeling of never being _______ enough. Good enough, thin enough, successful enough…fill in the blank. Arriving at a place of contentment and self-acceptance is the central spiritual challenge for most people: finding a way to hold one’s full humanity – all of who you are, your ups and downs, your triumphs and challenges, your joys and your sorrows, your assets and your imperfections – with kindness and compassion. Everyone struggles with this. It’s not easy for anyone.

I remember reading that when the Dalai Lama first started teaching in the United States, he was astonished and sad to learn how many Americans he encountered on the spiritual path live with a crippling self-hatred. Among the most beautiful Buddhist teachings is the notion that compassion begins with oneself: “You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” The kicker is that if you live with a huge amount of self-judgment, being unable to summon self-acceptance or self-compassion can be one more thing to be down on yourself about.

Three things have helped me grow compassion for myself. Daily meditation practice has been an important foundation in my life for 25 years now, but something major shifted the first time I did a 10-day vipassana retreat at Insight Meditation Society in western Massachusetts. Sitting in silence hour after hour, day after day, I was forced to pay attention to the harsh critical judge in my head constantly blasting his criticisms through a loudspeaker, loudly announcing everything that was wrong with me and everyone around me. It was so painful that I had to realize that this voice came only from inside me (though traces of it sounded very familiar from my hyper-critical father) and it motivated me to learn the skills it takes to turn down the volume on that cruel broadcast and to replace the messages with more soul-nourishing words. Mindfulness retreats generally include instruction in metta, where one practices prayers of lovingkindness and compassion for yourself and others: “May I be peaceful. May I be healthy. May I be happy.” Self-compassion can be learned. It takes practice.

Years of therapy also helped me come to terms with myself, my resources, my limitations, my family heritage, my cultural imprints, my hopes, and my fears. In my training to become a therapist, nothing was more effective and revelatory than the hard long work I did on myself in individual and group therapy, along with clinical supervision from my teachers and colleagues.

I’m also a reader, so in addition to meditation and psychotherapy my svadyaya, my self-study, has always included books by spiritual teachers and seekers and thinkers. Many books have had a profound impact on me, but five of them resonate so strongly that I share them with therapy clients all the time. They have practically become the textbooks that accompany the careful, compassionate inner work that I do with people.

Taming Your Gremlin by Richard Carson came to me from the realm of life coaching. Carson introduces the extremely useful concept of the gremlin, that voice inside you that knows you so well and knows how to speak to you so persuasively and protectively and is absolutely expert at spoiling your fun. It’s a short, breezy, light-hearted but smart book that offers guidance on identifying and dealing with gremlins, mostly by not engaging or arguing with them but by taking some breaths and doing something different.

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach directly addresses the struggle to win free of the harsh internal voices insisting that you’re not good enough. I met Brach when she co-facilitated that life-changing vipassana retreat with Jack Kornfield (another important teacher of mine), and I appreciate how much she draws from her own personal experience in humorous, honest, and self-forgiving ways. Often when I need to summon the voice of self-compassion, it’s her soothing voice that I hear (largely thanks to the CD, Embracing Difficult Emotions, that came with Radical Acceptance).

The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs is the best psychology book I know of that speaks directly to gay men. Downs charts three stages of gay men’s emotional development: working through toxic shame around being gay; working through toxic shame around imperfection; and arriving at authenticity. The key concept that made sense to me is how Downs describes the second stage as revolving around seeking validation from others, which is something we all do. The ultimate goal of authenticity arrives when the validation comes from within. But that can be a long journey. And when you’re seeking external validation, Downs points out, if you’re not being actively validated, it can feel like you’re being actively invalidated – which is simultaneously enraging and, you know, not nice, so it has to be hidden: thus, the Velvet Rage. How to identify these phenomena as they occur in your life and to manage them compassionately is the gist and the gift of his book.

A therapy client turned me on to David Richo’s How To Be an Adult. At first I was put off by the title of this slim volume because it sounded so Mickey Mouse, so simplistic to the point of being insulting. But it lives up to its subtitle: “A Handbook for Psychological and Spiritual Integration.” Richo addresses core issues such as fear, anger, guilt, and intimacy with remarkable succinctness and tremendous wisdom. He organizes his brief chapters often around lists and charts. The one that distinguishes anger from drama is so simple and clear yet surprisingly true that you have to laugh.

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown grew out of her social research on the subject of vulnerability (the subject of her famous TED talk). Her writing contains all the warmth and humor and self-revealing genuineness of her speaking voice. And she’s especially good at addressing the issue of shame, describing what it is, and sharing a pathway to acquiring what she calls “shame resilience,” a way to greet harsh self-judgments sensibly and effectively.

I don’t consider any of these books to be sacred texts to swear by or that require you to read and believe every word of. Nor are they the only books that deeply resonate with me; I could just as easily talk about Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart, Byron Katie’s Loving What Is, or Pema Chodron’s teaching tape Getting Unstuck. To me the value of these books and these teachings is that they offer a vocabulary for identifying and understanding the emotional, spiritual, and psychological challenges that we all face as human beings, and they provide a valuable, non-dogmatic road map for the journey to self-knowledge, self-forgiveness, self-compassion, and self-acceptance. Svadyaya and santosha.

For some people, reading books provides fantastic spiritual nourishment all by itself. For others, it helps to share books with other people, individually or in groups. As I mentioned, key concepts from these various books have provided fuel for many fruitful sessions with me and my therapy clients. If any of these topics resonate with you or sound like something you would like support to address and understand, please know that I am available as a resource to you.


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