Wednesday, May 25, 2016

When did Second City become so Self-Satisfied?

     In today’s marketing era, an institution is one whose brand is indestructible, no matter whether the quality has slipped.  Second City embodies this definition in its current main stage revue Fool Me Twice, Déjà Vu.  The concept was intriguing, but the execution was off-key and veered dangerously close to being amateurish.  The set-up was that one cast member was in the now while the rest of the cast was in 1991.  It was a time machine he’d invented and the others were visiting him.  It was funny and the first act’s subtext was an examination of the extent to which American life and culture had changed over the past quarter century.  The best scene involved three young mothers energetically celebrating “having it all.”  The by-products were exhilaration, entitlement, and exhaustion.

The Cast of Fool Me Twice, Déjà Vu
     The second act began as an off-kilter version of the first act’s beginning:  the Déjà Vu effect squared.  The twentysomething brother/sister behind me felt the need to point this out to each other, though it only needed explaining for the obtuse or feeble-minded.  Although the variations, especially a family brunch scene, were droll and amusing, the ensemble made the fatal mistake of breaking numerous times.  Though this can seem funny when it happens inadvertently, it became a motif where the cast members were more focused on entertaining one another and themselves than they were in pointing at truths to an audience.  It’s narcissistic – the absolute opposite intention of improvisation – and lazy, which is the worst rip-off of a paying audience by professionals.

     The fully improvised third act was sloppy.  The first game was word/sentence association and went on three times longer than its natural ending, which was a hilarious example by Jamison Webb, who was the glue that held the ensemble together.  I felt Daniel Strauss was checked out of this part.  His best moments were one line in the first act and its repeat in the second act.  Strauss broke the cardinal rule of accepting a detail given him by another cast member and going with it.  Instead, he denied it and justified this by his character’s bad memory.  I couldn’t reconcile this ‘variation’ on the orthodoxy of improv.  Paul Jurewicz worked well, but the audience
Rashawn Nadine Scott
seemed primed to see another John Belushi just because he possessed girth.  Rashawn Nadine Scott sparked in any audience interaction game, while Sarah Shook was kookily attractive, but willing to do anything for a laugh.  I liked Kelsey Kinney a lot in a long improv about Google programmers, but she kept performing the same type of character continually in the first two acts.

     None of this seemed to faze the audience, however.  They were overly conversant with the legendary past of Second City and reacted as if they were watching then in their prime.  Ten years ago or so we saw an excellent troupe exemplified by the Black Republican sketch and the ancient black grandmother giving shockingly honest advice to much younger listeners.  I don’t know what happened to those performers, but they were excellent.  I saw Paradigm Shift in ’97 (partly written by Tina Fey) and found its quick retread of part of act one in the second act and final summative moments to be startlingly fresh.  I still remember Rachel Dratch’s mother of a gargoyle.  Fool Me Twice isn’t fresh, especially in the negative stereotyping of southerners and the easy shots at straight white Anglo-Saxon males.  They could have added Jewish males in the movie business as well, but they didn’t have the guts to go quite that far.  The lack of liberal self-awareness was surprising.  In the past, the ensemble has been able to poke fun at itself, but this was not an element of this production.

     The three-generation family behind us – I figured out that the younger members were explaining what was going on to the grandmother.  How she was able to get into the performance space in her wheelchair was beyond me, but she was sandwiched in like the rest of us.  They left during the improvised set I assume because it was coarse and not very funny.

Jacob Shuda
    The musical direction was stellar and did a lot to punch up the pacing and underscore the specific scenes’ emotions.  Musical Director and pianist Jacob Shuda looked like a star when he took his bow.  The cast should take a cue from him.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Mary Page Marlowe at Steppenwolf

     Neil was interested in seeing Tracy Lettts’ Mary Page Marlowe (MPM) because it was premiering at Steppenwolf and we wanted a reason to visit Chicago; I was interested after I read a rave in The New York Times (yes, bloggers can be review whores).  Letts has deservedly earned a reputation as a major American dramatist and he’s focused on the middle of the country with intelligent, quirky characters finding themselves in situations that begin mundanely and turn horrific.  With Superior Donuts (2008) and now MPM, he’s examining the details of ordinary lives, the type of people watching the show or people that viewers know.

     Baby boomer Mary Page Marlowe, living in Dayton and then Lexington, leads a life that many women of her generation did (and do) in being raised by parents who came of age before World War II, listened to records and thought about boys in the ‘50s, graduated from college in the ‘60s, got married and worked professionally, had a family, divorced, and I won’t go on from there because I don’t want to spoil the story, which depends on its specific details and the order of their revelation.  Although these were turbulent times that changed the culture in the U.S., MPM is not a leader in any movement.  She’s an ordinary middle-class woman and this frustrates her, along with her tacitly acknowledged Catholic guilt, resulting in behavior she regrets.

Madeline Weinstein, Jack Edwards and Rebecca Spence
     Letts’ coup de theatre is to portray scenes from her life out of chronological order so that the audience has clues to figure out MPM’s personality and motivations and also renders what could be commonplace when told like an obituary as various startling and defining moments.  Director Anna D. Shapiro has cast six actresses as Mary over the decades.  Rebecca Spence and Blair Brown are standouts in the role.  I’d like to have seen more of Spence, but the next scene she might have played chronologically was cast with another actress.  I wish we could have seen Carrie Coon since she was fierce in Gone Girl (2014), but her understudy was playing instead and was very good, though her wigs looked like wigs.  

     All of the actors in the large cast performed beautifully, especially newcomer Madeline Weinstein as Mary’s daughter Wendy and the veteran Steppenwolf member Alan Wilder as Mary’s final husband.  Without ever underlining, the production demonstrates the time periods easily through Todd Rosenthal’s set design and Linda Roethke’s costumes.  Large screen projections were integral to the scene changes (as they were in the Shaw’s production of Sweet Charity last year), but Sven Ortel’s are decorative and thematic, rather than being descriptive.

The Final Scene with Blair Brown
     The one problem with the performance was its ending.  Rather than a dramatic climax, though there were fraught confrontations earlier, the final moment is one of quiet epiphany.  However, there wasn’t an arresting conclusion with lighting or sound to draw the applause it deserved.  An understated, eloquent play was left hanging and I think Shapiro needs to re-think the moments after the final image so that the audience can react properly.

MPM runs through June 5, 2016.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Forno Osteria & Bar

Forno Osteria & Bar
     Cincinnati needs another mid-range plus priced Italian restaurant like Columbus needs another restaurant chain.  Cristian Pietoso is also the chef owner of Via Vite on Fountain Square, which is one of our favorite places for either casual or nicer meals.  His father owns Nicola’s and that’s still one of the loveliest restaurants in the region.  Forno Osteria & Bar is in ‘Hyde Park East’, which I think is really south Oakley, on Erie Avenue.  It’s a risky location because although many restaurants have made this a glossy district, few of them have survived more than a couple of years.  The exceptions have been Bangkok Bistro and Sake Bomb.  I still miss the unassuming and charming Pasta al Dente, but that’s another story entirely.  Like Forno, it also made its own pastas.  

Interior Dining and Bar
     Kris, Karn, and Helen were visiting and Karn wanted to check out one of the most talked about restaurants right now.  We decided on Forno because we hadn’t been there.  The indoors/outdoors element of the space will be very popular in the summer, but I thought the dark wood felt like an Italian monster sized version of Lincoln Logs.   The tables are close together; I was able to hear everyone’s order and the servers’ recommendations at the three tables around us.  The entrance was awkward because the manager was on the phone as we were leaving and we had to squeeze past.

Artichoke Soup
     The food, on the other hand, was mostly very good.  Karn, Kris, and Neil had the Fresh Artichoke soup with Parmigiano Reggiano and crostini.  It’s puréed, but with a little texture and has a lovely, golden color.  The taste has a real brightness about it, but I wouldn’t have guessed it was artichoke if I hadn’t known.  Helen had the Margherita pizza with the mozzarella, but without the leaf basil.  We finished it off the next day and I liked it, but I didn’t think it was anything special; it’s not better than Dewey’s.

Roasted Atlantic Cod
     Kris chose the Roasted Atlantic Cod with arugula pesto and soffritto.  The cod was a little drier than I expected with a slight fishiness, but the pesto and soffritto were both excellent.  
Tortelloni Gorgonzola
Karn went with the Tortelloni Gorgonzola—a rich and full-bodied dish covered with veal Parmigiano glace, mushroom and thyme.  Neil was attracted to the Gnocchi with Leek Parmigiano fondue and speck (a form of bacon).  This was a charming dish; the potato pasta was light and the sauce had senses of citrus and smoke about it. 
Gnocchi with Leek Parmigiano

Braised Honeycomb Tripe
     I ordered the Braised Honeycomb Tripe because it’s a specialty and I haven’t seen it on other menus.  It had a texture somewhere between octopus and mushrooms and was covered in a red wine tomato sauce.  It was rich enough to be a small entrée on its own.   I would certainly order it again, but probably consider soup or a salad with it instead.  
Whole Wheat Pappardelle Cinghiale
I went on to the Whole Wheat Pappardelle Cinghiale with beer braised wild boar ragout, which was basically like pulled beef with a tomato Bolognese sauce.  Pietoso always generates a full, rounded base to his red sauces with a complexity of notes in the spices and the alcohol.

     People that would want to visit should do so sooner than later because turnover in this part of the city is quicker than one might assume.

Forno Osteria & Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Eye in the Sky: A contemporary British cross between Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘50s period and Kathryn Bigelow’s war movies

     Though Helen Mirren has been featured as the star and has valiantly promoted the movie, Eye in the Sky depends upon a strong ensemble cast and an impressive script to achieve its goals.  It presents a number of hot button topics:  the geographically expanding Islamic war against the West; drone strikes; first world citizens becoming radicalized; gender equality in all manner of professions; inclusive casting; the Western literary tradition as a blueprint for modern cinema.  That sounds heady, but the movie is a wartime military thriller, a black comedy about indecisiveness at the highest levels, and a small-scale tragedy resulting from international conflict.

Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell
     Mirren plays a Colonel tracking a radicalized British citizen that she wants to capture.  However, that goal changes as a number of other factors suddenly present themselves and collateral casualties have to be calculated.  Mirren looks to be no older than when she began playing Jane Tennant on Prime Suspect in the early ‘90s.  However, since we have a history with her, there are moments when I felt like telling some of the other characters, “Don’t you know she’s the Queen and Jane Tennison?  Just do what she’s requesting.  We know she’ll be right; she has been for decades.”  We considered whether the character was a metaphorical reflection of Hillary Clinton.

Aaron Paul
     Neil wondered if Aaron Paul will draw a younger audience, especially since he gives a gutsy and sensitive performance as the pilot of the satellite controlled drone bomber.  
Alan Rickman
In one of his last roles, Alan Rickman displays both gravity and an ironic levity in dealing with the highest-level politicians and bureaucrats.  Barkhad Abdi, the chief pirate in Captain Phillips, plays the main spy on the ground, who finds himself in an almost impossibly suspenseful situation.  It’s a variation on Hitchcock’s definition of suspense, but substitutes a missile for a bomb.

Barkhad Abdi
     The British are uncertain and pained to unnecessarily destroy; their American counterparts portrayed by an unrecognizably corpulent Michael O’Keefe and an eager Laila Robbins (wonderful as Masha in John Doyle’s Playhouse production of Three Sisters a few years ago) display no second thoughts whatsoever.  At different points in the movie, 
Lalia Robbins
it’s difficult to know which view is more appropriate. The justification raised a number of times is that many people could be killed in a mall such as what happened in Nairobi in 2013.  Though filmed in South Africa, the setting is an older, shabbier suburb where the modern, westernized downtown can be seen.  Africa looks golden in Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography whereas Mirren seems to be working out of a high-tech cave – the military version of Batman?  Will the huge crowds attending dreck like Batman vs. Superman attend Eye in the Sky, which presents the actual principal world conflict?

A Drone's Perspective
     Guy Hibbert’s script works on a number of levels simultaneously and it pulled in the small audience with whom we saw it at The Esquire.  People were talking at the screen as well as checking out one another for reactions.  It’s the type of experience that electrified Classical Greek Theatre audiences.  Hibbert uses “In war, truth is the first casualty” by Aeschuylus as an epigraph, referring to the fear of public relations in conducting various rules of engagement.  However, that oversimplifies both the humor and the humanity of the story.  The movie seemed to be a contemporary descendant of the more mercurial Greek dramatist Euripides.  I don’t want to gave away much of the plot, but I think most viewers will want to yell out, “Buy that bread!  Buy that bread!”

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Delhi Palace: Unassuming but essential Indian cuisine in the region

     Delhi Palace on Montgomery Road in Silverton has been open for a couple of years and it’s turned into our go-to destination for its lunch buffet.  I don’t know why we haven’t reviewed it before now, but I suspect it’s because like a comfortable shoe, we take it for granted even as we’re checking out something more glamorous that doesn’t fit well.  
The Lunch Buffet

The menu is extensive, but some of the favorites at Delhi Palace show up at the terrific (and reasonable) lunch buffet.  It’s worth starting there and returning for dinner a la carte on another occasion.

Flavorful Chicken Dishes
     Delhi Palace can nail chicken every time.  Regardless of the dish and the protein’s preparation, it’s always tender, which can be harder to pull off than one might initially imagine.  The Chicken Tandoori is tasty and served in smaller portions than at other restaurants.  That’s a good thing because a whole thigh or breast can sometimes be tough in spots.  Plus, it gives the diner more room on the plate for 
A Lunch Sampling
some of the other dishes.  Chicken in Butter Sauce is beautifully flavored, though mildly spiced.  It’s a rich sauce like others at this restaurant, but it’s worth it.  Their version of Saag Paneer, a staple on local Indian menus, is hands down the best in town.  It’s creamier than others, but also more complexly seasoned.  The Dal (Lentil) Soup has a citrus after-bite, which is intriguing.  The Tomato Soup was also very good when I had it in the past.  The Mango Lassi has a purer mango flavor and color than other versions I’ve drunk in the past.

Remodeled Dining Room
     The dining room has been spruced up recently, which has cut all decorative ties with the previous restaurants in this location.  Unlike some other popular or well-established Indian restaurants in the region, Delhi Palace always looks neat and there isn’t spilled food from maladroit patrons.  The gentlemen that serve and host are invariably competent and friendly in a quiet manner.  One caveat:  whether dining buffet style or a la carte, the portions are far more filling than they initially appear. 

Delhi Palace Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Annapurna at Ensemble: Powerful but Uneven

     Sharr White’s Annapurna (2011), directed in its regional premiere by Lynn Meyers, starts off as if it’s the sequel to one of Sam Shepard’s classics.  Those crazy, intense lovers in their surreal spaces end up twenty years later in a trailer park.  However, as the play progressed, it became apparent that it was the last embers of a romantic tragedy.  As I said about Ensemble’s earlier production of White’s The Other Place last season, I don’t want to give too much away about the story behind the plot because it becomes far more intriguing than it initially appears.  

Parlato and Pugh*
     Dennis Parlato gives a masterful performance as Ulysses, immediately establishing a complex, all-encompassing rhythm.  He’s playing a semi-legendary character (sort of what Denis Johnson might have been like if he hadn’t kicked drugs and alcohol) faced with a major figure from his past.  Unlike his namesake, he’s not going anywhere; he’s running out of time and is trapped in space.  It took me a while to warm up to Regina Pugh as Emma, even though I have always admired her work.  Susan and I thought she seemed as if she was in a light comedy at the beginning, while Katy and Lisa thought she was finding a way for her character to cope with the initial situation.  Pugh always makes definite choices in her acting, which I respect, but they didn’t all work for me here.  However, after the first half hour, she began to match Parlato beat for beat, resulting in a powerful climax.  
The Horrifying Set
     When we sat down as a group, Neil said, “Eric will have a tough time with this set.”  It’s the type of design that gets a Tony nomination and three cheers to Brian c. Mehring for it and for the lighting and to Shannon Rae Lutz for the properties.  It’s a life-size singlewide trailer that was built in the late ‘70s (my Mom has the same kitchen cabinetry) and has been inhabited by someone who’s somewhere between a nuclear slob and a toxic hoarder.  I kept looking for the mummified pet that shows up on Hoarders, but fortunately Ms. Lutz didn’t go that far.  I tried to avert my eyes from looking at it full on because it was like driving by a head on collision.

     There are some clarifications needed from the script.  Annapurna is a collection of mountains in the Himalayas and becomes significant because of Ulysses’ writing.  Katy pointed out some inconsistencies in the exposition details.  This is an established script so it cannot be changed, but I wonder why the original director or a dramaturge didn’t point this out to White.  Also, did Emma buy groceries in Missouri because there isn’t a Piggly Wiggly in Colorado – the setting of the play?  Is this in the script or a choice by Lutz? 

*Photo from Ensemble Theatre website.
Annapurna runs through April 10, 2016.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Mothers and Sons: Almost There

     Terrence McNally’s Mother and Sons (2014) has been directed with clarity by Timothy Douglas in the Thompson Shelterhouse space at Playhouse in the Park.  When I read it in his Selected Works:  A Memoir in Plays (2016), I found its characters’ sense of loss and rage, tempered somewhat by the passage of two decades, poignant and moving.  I warned Neil that there would be tears at the finale.  There were, but unfortunately they weren’t mine.

The Cast of Mothers and Sons*
     The play is a sequel to McNally’s teleplay André’s Mother (1990), where André Gerard had died of AIDS and his lover Cal, Cal’s family and their friends hold a memorial service for him that his mother attends, but she’s unable to come to terms with any of it or fully express herself.  Twenty years later, Katharine, André’s mother, unexpectedly visits Cal.  He has married a younger man and they have a son.  This is a ghost story in which André haunts both Katharine and Cal in very different ways.   The tone moves from politeness to anger, regret and, finally, reconciliation.  

Alvin Keith and Stephanie Berry*
     Alvin Keith and Ben Cherry are very strong as respectively Cal and his husband Will.  Stephanie Berry has the elegant demeanor and beautiful legs called for in the script.  She’s a technically accomplished actress, but she’s emotionally warm and seems accepting, which goes against the initial essence of the character.  The payoff of her character’s thaw seems more muted than in the script.  During the preview we saw, she had a couple of struggles with her lines.  There’s an intriguing, unspoken edge in casting Keith and Berry that strengthens this production, which wouldn’t be there with white performers as in the initial New York productions.  Austin Vaughan plays the youngster Bud with vivacity.  

     Junghyun Georgia Lee’s set design evoked an upper-middle class apartment in New York’s Central Park West; the color and proportion of the chaise couch rooted the play in its milieu.  The lighting was sharp except for the peculiar last cue (and it’s in the script) where it brightens intensely before the blackout.  Neil thought it was supposed to be symbolic and I think he’s right, but it wasn’t necessary because that came across in the relationship between the characters.  The costumes were appropriate, but Katherine’s dress didn’t fit as well as it could have; I caught Berry discreetly pulling it down.

     All in all, this is a good production of an important contemporary script that shows how much life has changed for gays and straights in the decades since AIDS was an immediate death sentence.

Mothers and Sons runs through April 17, 2016.
*Photos from Playhouse in the Park website.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Actors Theatre of Louisville still takes risks with The Humana Festival

     It’s always worth a trip to Louisville in March-April to see one of the world premieres at Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) as part of the Humana Festival.  This is the 40th year of the festival and the line-up of plays seems intriguing this year.  We decided to call for a couple of tickets, stop for lunch at Havana Rumba (or Jack Fry’s or Hammerheads or the new Game, take your pick), and go to a 4 p.m. matinee of Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on her 70th birthday.  The synopsis told us something, namely that it was about a woman who’d played Peter Pan onstage when she was younger and her family living in Iowa.

Kathleen Chalfant
     We discovered while reading the program that the cast included Kathleen Chalfant, a great stage actress we’d only seen on film and TV, Scott Jaeck, whom I saw a number of times in Chicago while I was in college, and Keith Reddin , author of some of the most stylistically adventurous comedies of the 1980s including Rum and Coke and Highest Standard of Living, and other top actors we’ve seen on various TV series as guest stars.  Les Waters, artistic director at ATL, directed as he has four other works by Ruhl.  Amy Wegener, ATL literary manager, was the dramaturg.  (This means she does lots of research for directors and actors on existing plays and works as an editor with new plays, especially world premieres like this one).  London based designer Annie Smart was responsible for the set.  Everything sounded great.

The Entire Cast in the Hospital Scene*
     During the prologue, Chalfant immediately connected with the audience as the central character Ann (I wondered if the audience was mesmerized by the actress or the character and I have to say in retrospect it was Chalfant’s magic) and got things off to a bright start.  Then the curtains were pulled back to reveal a naturalistic hospital set that looked more contemporary because of its color scheme than the 1990s mentioned in the program.  An elderly man was dying, surrounded by his grown children and for anyone who’s been at a deathbed, it’s not something that’s immediately entertaining and Ruhl did little to make the experience specific to that group of characters or deeply resonant to an audience.

Wendy and Peter*
     The cast was challenged by a number of factors that it met head on.  First, Chalfant’s Ann never made sense as someone who never grew up and needed reassurances from her brothers.  However, she valiantly made this as truthful as she could.  Lisa Emery’s Wendy, the youngest sibling, had all the desperation of a middle-aged person lost in the family shuffle and unwilling to deal with anything difficult or mature.  Ann seemed like a second mother to her brothers, namely the iconic Wendy, whereas Wendy made much more sense as Peter Pan.  Second, Ruhl loves to shift gears between a gently realistic comedy-drama and a whimsical approach to fantasy and connections to myth (Greek in the past, but J.M. Barrie here).  It seemed charming and original a decade ago in The Clean House, but this script never went deep enough in fleshing out the siblings nor strongly enough in connecting them to the Peter Pan archetypes and then the actual Pan characters and situations in the third scene.  Where was the dramaturg in this?  When was this draft of the script completed?  

     The major challenge at this matinee was an elderly audience member who fell up some stairs about halfway through the performance and what seemed like a dozen audience members and the house management staff tried to assist.  No one whispered so it was pretty obvious what was going on.  At one point, the house doors were opened to the street for the EMT to assist and then transport the patient.  The performance never wavered, which the audience credited to the cast with a standing ovation.  However, no one from the theatre ever informed the audience what had transpired at the end of the performance and the situation continued for about a half hour.  If Ruhl had been present, she would have seen something remarkable:  the audience, for the most part, was more interested in what was going on with the audience member that fell than it was in the story onstage.  

     If this were reported to her, I’d hope she’d consider revising the play.  The first thing Neil observed was that it wasn’t finished and he was right.  The fantasy elements, while lovely, are not woven densely enough into the texture of the aging Iowa siblings’ story and the relationships between those characters are not detailed enough for an audience to really care.  There’s nothing that would offend any audience member even though the specter of political discourse is raised yet quickly dropped and that’s a problem.  It’s a safe, mild play in which a group of wonderful actors provide far more substance to the proceedings than the play merits at this juncture.  Ruhl’s very hot right now (she’s actually a little overrated) so I doubt any of this will be recommended to her and most likely this current script version will be produced elsewhere because of her name.

     However, we don’t mean for this review to keep audiences from attending the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville.  There are other scripts and productions going on that are probably wonderful.  We’ve seen other terrific shows there in the past and we’ll certainly return.  One note to Waters and Wegener:  what about reviving one of Reddin’s scripts?  I bet they still hold up.

*Photos by Bill Brymer for ATL

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Don’s Party

Smart, rude, and relevant

     Bruce Beresford’s Don’s Party (1976) was barely released outside of Australia, but thanks to TCM (and probably Netflix), it’s available.  It’s a party movie that really gets wild.  As the character that becomes the political butt to everyone else, says, “I’ve never met so many university educated people that are uncouth.”  Like Shampoo (1975), Don’s Party takes place during what was an important election.  In this case, it was 1969 and the Labour Party was supposed to narrowly defeat the two-decades incumbent Liberal Party.  

The Cast of Don's Party
     Most of the characters support Labour and met in college fifteen years previously as either students or instructors.  Unlike the American college reunion movies The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1981) or The Big Chill (1983), there’s neither sentimentality nor nostalgia for the past.  Most of their lives haven’t worked out the way they thought they would, but that doesn’t really come out until the end and it’s not the reason they behave the way they do.  The one really successful couple, which has been more recently added to the mix, is cold, narcissistic, and single-minded.

The Pool Scene
     The acting ensemble – stars in Australia, but little known here – possesses a force that reminded me of really good American movie acting from the ‘40s or ‘50s.  The rhythm felt partially improvised and the primary emotions of lust, frustration, and anger roll in waves.  Neil thought it looked like 1969, though I was somewhat unsure.  Director Beresford made more movies in Australia (including the great war tragedy Breaker Morant in 1980) before following Hollywood’s siren call in the 1980s.  

Monday, February 29, 2016

Mavis Gallant – The Writer’s Writer

     I’ve always wanted to read Mavis Gallant since Fran Lebowitz opined on Charlie Rose that The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant was one of the books of the year.  She sounded fascinating because she was a Canadian who spent most of her adult life in France.  I read a couple of her really short stories from that collection after it went into paperback in Joseph Beth, but didn’t actually buy it.  (I only feel somewhat guilty about that since I’ve purchased a couple trees worth of books at JB).  She died last year at 91 after a lengthy career, though she wasn’t published in Canada until the ‘70s.  Her American reputation was made because over a hundred of her stories appeared in The New Yorker (only John Cheever saw more of his short fiction published there).

     I saw Paris Stories (2002) at this darling independent bookstore in Niagara-on-the-Lake so I bought it and started reading it almost immediately and it ended up taking me about two and a half months even though there’s only fifteen stories.  What happened?  They’re densely detailed and intricate works that were physically difficult to read because the font was so small.  Either Canadians have better eyes than me – quite possible – or they’re used to this font.  Maybe it’s cultural.  

Mavis Gallant in Paris
     In this collection, Gallant focuses mainly on Paris as well as other parts of France and Switzerland while presenting French natives, ex-patriots from North America, and refugees from Eastern Europe.  The stories cover over fifty years from the immediate aftermath of World War II through the 1990s.  An underlying theme is that Europe has never fully recovered from that war and the subsequent conflicts between democracy, communism, and fascism.  Having lived in Europe, it felt like a collective lived memory to me, but I don’t think most American readers would be as entranced.  

Mavis Gallant Writing in Postwar Paris
     In “Forain,” Gallant encapsulates her overarching theme in an image of an immigrant writer’s funeral:

Only a few of the mourners mounting the treacherous steps can have had a thought to spare for Tremski’s private affairs.  His wife’s flight from a brave and decent husband, dragging by the hand a child of three, belonged to the folklore, not the history of mid-century emigration.  The chronicle of two generations, displaced and dispossessed, had come to a stop.  The evaluation could begin, had already started.  Scholars who looked dismayingly youthful, speaking the same language, but with a new, jarring vocabulary, were trekking to Western capitals – taping reminiscences, copying old letters.  History turned out to be a plodding science.  What most émigrés settled for now was the haphazard accuracy of a memory like Tremski’s.  In the end it was always a poem that ran through the mind – no a string of dates.  

Like her compatriot Alice Munro, Gallant writes stories that are much bigger than the form.  Munro’s stories have the psychological detail and complex plot structures of novels whereas Gallant’s stories are the essence of entire cultures and histories.  The major difference between them is that Munro always has one character in a story with whom a reader can empathize; Gallant never identifies with any specific character, but regards them with, as Mary McCarthy termed it, “a cold eye.”   That may be the reason that Gallant didn’t have as broad a readership as Munro.

     However, this approach works brilliantly in the chilling “August.”  Here’s part of a letter that a young woman writes to her psychotherapist about what she sees as their failed professional relationship:

     “What help can you give me?” she wrote.  “I have often been disgusted by the smell of your dresses and your rotten teeth.  If in six months you have not been able to take your dresses to be cleaned, or yourself to a dentist, how can you help me?  Can you convince me that I’m not going to be hit by a car when I step off the curb?  Can you convince me that the sidewalk is a safe place to be?“  

Mavis Gallant at Le Dôme Restaurant in Paris*
     I’m glad I finally read Gallant.  She’s daunting and somewhat involved.  I took much longer with her book (about two months) and this review (about four weeks) than I initially expected.  Perhaps that’s the result of examining work that is classic rather than timely.  Or it could be a result of my lack of focus.  

*Photograph by Paul Cooper