11.13.14 – Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time came highly recommended to me, but I couldn’t get into it. The first-person narration by a 15-year-old math geek and amateur detective who inhabits some pocket along the autism spectrum struck me as both cutesy and implausible. Marianne Elliott’s spectacular Broadway production (imported from London) solves the problem by using a full array of theatrical techniques to portray both the kid Christopher’s mental state AND the environment in which he lives. The director, who made her name with the equally spectacular staging of War Horse, gets major help from Bunny Christie’s scenic design and Paule Constabile’s lighting, which continually work magic on the stage of the Ethel Barrymore, and also from a fine cast. Alex Sharp has justifiably earned rave reviews for his strong, completely unsentimental performance in the central role, but I was also very impressed and moved by Ian Barford, who plays his father, a character who does a lot of crappy things and yet Barford never lets you forget that he is a loving, devoted, and imperfect parent. But the secret star of the show, not for the first time, is Steven Hoggett, who (with Scott Graham of the British dance company Frantic Assembly) devised the choreography, or more accurately stage movement – as he did with The Black Watch, Once, Rocky, The Last Ship, American Idiot, and The Glass Menagerie, Hoggett gets actors to create shapes and gestures with their bodies that don’t look like dancing and aren’t literal-minded pantomime but are as deeply expressive as any other element of the show. I walked out quite emotionally frazzled because the production effectively put me inside the brave/terrified/confused/confusing mind of the kid. Andy walked out exhilarated because he loved that way the show valorized math geekery. Stay for the post-curtain-call “bonus scene.”
11.15.14 – Director Sam Gold has taken a lot of drubbing for his staging of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing for the Roundabout Theater Company at the American Airlines Theatre. It is quite unorthodox, a Brechtian staging of a Stoppard play, and I guess I liked the perversity of that unlikely approach. It couldn’t be more different from the glamorous original Broadway production directed by Mike Nichols (RIP) starring Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close, and it lacks the charm of David Leaveaux’s 2000 revival, even though the Roundabout production has a delicious cast: Ewan McGregor as Henry, the arrogant hit playwright; Cynthia Nixon as his first actress wife Charlotte; Maggie Gyllenhaal as his second actress wife Annie; and Josh Hamilton as the actor best friend whom Henry betrays. The play brims with even more theatrical cleverness than is usual for Stoppard’s work – plays within plays, art that reflects life that reflects art – and Gold’s production piles on top of that an extra layer of peeling back the masks the actors wear and having them hang out at the top of the show and between scenes singing the pop songs that the script references (usually heard only on recordings), which reminded me of his cozy communal environmental staging of Annie Baker’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya at Soho Rep a couple of years ago. Ewan McGregor so aggressively played down the enormous charm he conveys on film that I wasn’t connecting with his performance emotionally for the longest time, but halfway through the second act both he and Gyllenhaal (below) completely got me, in the very emotional scene where Annie really forces Henry to address the real emotional issues his plays bandy about so glibly.
I’ve been in the grip of an obsession lately with Laura Poitras, the super-talented high-integrity investigative journalist who works in the form of documentary film. I watched the first two parts of her trilogy about post-9/11 America on DVD, via Netflix. The first, My Country, My Country (2006), followed a doctor at a free medical clinic who also served on the Baghdad City Council in the months leading up to the first national election after the U.S. invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein. Poitras met him outside the Abu Ghraib prison where he was interviewing and attempting to intercede for detainees with medical problems, and she gained enough trust to stay with his family and record intimate scenes from Iraqi life that don’t show up in the headlines of American media: the impact of life under occupation, sectarian nuances, etc. The film also portrays the elaborate security surrounding voter registration and casting ballots, things we take for granted in the U.S. Some American military personnel are portrayed as helpful; others seem like idiots, like the guard outside the prison (prison = tents baking in the sun, surrounded by barbed wire fences) telling detainees “Your files are being reviewed.” The release of this film led to Poitras’s being placed on the watch list and being detained more than 40 times in the course of making her next film. The Oath (2010) focuses on a guy who was Osama bin Laden’s bodyguard and his morally complicated journey from being pledged to support Al-Qaeda to turning against the notion of jihad, partly by watching his brother, a driver for bin Laden, getting turned over to the U.S. military and detained at Guantanamo.
I think the first time I really became aware of Poitras (above) was when I read a terrific article about her in the New York Times Magazine. It went into great detail about her collaboration with journalist Glenn Greenwald in helping Edward Snowden expose to the world the ways that the U.S. government’s National Security Agency has been illegally collecting data from American citizens (emails, credit card purchases, phone calls, voicemail messages) and lying about it pretty much every day since September 11, 2001. The culmination of this project is Poitras’s film Citizenfour (the title comes from the handle Snowden used when he first contacted the journalists in an effort to expose the NSA’s spying-on-civilians program), which had its premiere at the New York Film Festival. Simply put: you have to see this film. It’s fantastic, enraging, upsetting. Through her integrity and her intelligence and her aesthetic of restraint, Poitras has made an art form out of befriending and gaining the trust of the people to whom citizenfour is dedicated: “those who are willing to make great sacrifices to expose injustice.” The film documents with devastating clarity the intentional efforts the American government has made to rob citizens of their privacy. President Obama has never looked more weak and pathetic than in the brief moment he appears in this film.
Meanwhile, Snowden (above) comes off as a man – I will even say a patriot – with enormous integrity, passion, and commitment to truth and justice. The scenes in which he first speaks on camera to Poitras and Greenwald in a hotel in Hong Kong exemplify eloquence and moral strength; I almost burst into tears when he introduced himself and said, “I’m 29 years old.” Greenwald = equally impressive. The scene in which he addresses the Brazilian Senate, in American-accented Portuguese, gives the most succinct summary of the implications of the NSA’s collecting data on foreign citizens – not only, as they pretend, to combat terrorism but to gain financial and political advantage over competitors in the global market. William Binney, who quit his job at the NSA when he learned about the abuses being tolerated by his superiors, is a secondary star of the show. And at a meeting of lawyers in Berlin gathered to discuss defending Snowden in court, a guy from the American Civil Liberties Union simply and straightforwardly exposes the ludicrousness of Snowden’s being charged under the Espionage Act, equating someone who exposed the wrongdoing of the American government to the American people with spies who sold military secrets to the enemy. As Andy put it, that makes perfectly clear whom the American government considers the enemy: the American people.
I’ve liked a few of Taylor Swift’s songs, especially her endearingly adamant kiss-off anthem “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” (ever!). So I bought from iTunes her brand-new album 1989 just to be part of the pop moment. I’m disappointed that Swift is not more original. Perhaps it’s silly of me to expect her to be so. She is a musical aggregator, curating familiar sounds from the pop zeitgeist. The album’s opening track, “Welcome to New York,” sounds to me like Robyn, whose energetic disco-pop I like a lot, though a little less when it’s secondhand. You can’t tell me that “Bad Blood” doesn’t sound like Lorde’s breakthrough hit “Royals.” And the album’s out-of-the-box first hit single “Shake It Off” isn’t the only song on the album that sounds indistinguishable from Katy Perry – maybe not surprisingly, since most of 1989 was produced by Max Martin, who produced “California Gurls” and “Teenage Dream” for Perry, along with a dozen other hit songs.
I have loved Bette Midler since the first moment I became aware of her, doing a Mae West interpretation on The Tonight Show. I’ve seen her onstage probably more times than any other musical act, and I’ve collected all her records. So of course I had to order from Target.com the special deluxe edition of her new CD, It’s the Girls, just to get the two bonus tracks not available anywhere else. The songs are the album are a fascinating mixture of girl-group classics (“Be My Baby,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Mr. Sandman,” “Bei Mir Bist du Schon”) and unexpected choices (the Shangri-Las’ “Give Him a Great Big Kiss,” Martha and the Vandellas’ “Come and Get These Memories,” and especially TLC’s “Waterfalls”). Midler says her first girl-group record was by the Boswell Sisters, a little-known but hugely wonderful and crazy jazz-pop tight-harmony trio from the 1930s (the title track is one of theirs). I think my favorite cuts are “One Fine Day,” sheerly delirious, and “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” in the slowed-down Carole King manner. And the bonus track are wonderful surprise choices as well: “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” (first recorded by the Marvelettes, also sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Patti Smith, and Tracey Thorn from Everything but the Girl) and “Talk to Me of Mendocino” (from Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s debut album). The album was masterminded by pop wizard Marc Shaiman – composer, arranger, conductor, archivist, musician, co-producer (with Scott M. Riesett), and diehard fan.
A musician I can’t get enough of these days is Anouar Brahem, the Tunisian oud master who has put out almost a dozen albums on ECM Records. I started listening to him first in 1992, with Conte de l’incroyable amour, tracks from which figure prominently on a CD mix I’ve played for literally thousands of massage sessions. More recently I’ve gotten hooked on a beautiful 2002 CD called Le pas du chat noir, a collaboration with pianist Francois Couturier and Jean-Louis Matinier on accordion — spare, slow, beautiful music conjuring late nights in some dark cafe on a barely lit street in the old quarter of Nice, perfect for dreaming, unwinding, snuggling with my sweetie, or drifting in a pleasant low-level buzz. Almost as good is The Astounding Eyes of Rita from 2009 and a much earlier release, Barzakh, also a small-group session with Bechir Selmi on violin and Lassad Hosni on percussion. (Not recommended: 1998’s Thimar, unless you have more tolerance than I do for soprano sax — call it Kenny G’s fault, or Jan Garbarek’s, but soprano sax on its own almost instantly sounds shrill and treacly and ruins everything.) You can preview a lot of his stuff on Soundcloud.
11.21.14 – Strolling through the Museum of Modern Art on a Friday afternoon meant checking out two major shows currently running, “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” and “Robert Gober: The Heart Is Not a Metaphor.” It may be heretical to say this, but I’ve never especially enjoyed Matisse, and most of the cut-outs struck me as very pedestrian. Yet every so often there’s one stands out as something other than construction-paper-doodling: the large female nude Zulma and the huge wall-sized piece called Large Decoration with Masks did it for me.
Gober’s quirky body-part sculptures have amused and intrigued me, and they’re all here, alongside many rooms of elaborately banal remade readymades. I loved the big room in the middle of the show where you’re surrounded by woodsy wallpaper, especially the man’s naked lower body sticking out of the walls (like the one above, except, you know, naked), a musical score tattooed on his waxy body. But I think what I loved most about the Gober show were the security guards, each one distinctive, fierce, and quite unusual. Check them out, especially the tall guy who zealously guards the giant cigar that sits in the middle of the forest room…..
A couple of other random canvases that caught my eye, displayed in hallways at MOMA: