Perfectly Weird and Weirdly Perfect

If you haven’t seen Ride the Cyclone, get yourself to the carnival and buy a ticket! I now have a roller coaster story to add to my own.

Good theater may take us to a world we know. Great theater creates its own world and pulls us in. And this is great theater. Incredibly clever staging. Incisive and witty book. Recognizable characters who each stop the show with their song, tailor made in style to suit their persona.

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I’m reminded of Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. Staging you can’t anticipate. Theater like you’ve never seen before. Canadians Brooke Maxwell and Jacob Richmond do it for us here.

Favorite visual moment: when the girls’ white skirts are spread wide, then used as a projector screen, followed by the boy’s white shirt. Perfection.

Wait! Then there was Jane Doe’s eerie aria while she floats then twirls on high. This was no Peter Pan. More like Olympia from Tales of Hoffman infused with magic. Weird. Wonderful.

Favorite lyric: too many to isolate one. Here’s one I can remember to share. The jawbreaker lyric from “Sugarcloud.” “My life is a jawbreaker. I suck and suck and suck and suck. My heart is like a jawbreaker. It breaks and breaks.” Not to worry though. Constance comes out really well, considering she’s dead.

Oh! I didn’t tell you? Six teenagers die when a roller coaster malfunctions. In the carnival warehouse, their purgatory, a world weary fortune teller machine The Amazing Karmak tells them they can compete for the chance to go back to the living. And one will.

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So never fear. This is a comedy thoroughly and completely. It’s not morbid or a downer.

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How could it be with a gay character who channels a cross between Liza Minnelli in Cabaret and Marlene Dietrich in his hilarious lament? Or with Ocean O’Connell Rosenberg wittily skewering her companions in a Broadway style song before learning that the group will have to unanimously vote the winner back to life.

Trust me, knowing this much plot will not inhibit your own wowness with this show. I can’t begin to give you enough spoilers to do that. I will say that the lesson the show imparts is that life, “It’s Just a Ride.” Perfect.

Above the Line

I did my day backwards. Starting from a reflective, quiet experience, I ended with a quarreling barrel of noise and anger that fueled the Trump victory.

Story of my life at the moment. Escaping into art before being forced into reality.

Agnes Martin made over 600 paintings exploring emptiness, energy, seeing, and surprisingly, joy.


The show at the Guggenheim opens with this oddly shaped room hung with the entire ethereal series Islands I – XII from 1979. Here in Martin’s signature style, the paintings explore light and form and formlessness. She challenges us to slow down and look in order to really see. This is the work of art. To make us slow down and think, feel, remember, dream, and aspire.Martin wants you to experience innocence, freedom, perfection attained and resisted.

Here shapes emerge. Stripes of pale blue and gray. Pencil lines. All revealed up close and melt away at a distance. The pieces unite and converse, push against each other for space. They look stunning with the architecture.


Martin explained that she works in a meditative way, emptying her mind and waiting for inspiration. For her, inspiration is emotional, and the intellect does not produce artwork. So despite what you see, her works are not minimalist, mathematical explorations of line, color, shape. You can see the artist’s hand.

Loving Love, 1999

Untitled, 2004

painterly detail

painterly detail

Instead emotion fills her intention, and she argues the work, like the Abstract Expressionists. And not just any emotion.

Loving Love, 1999

Loving Love, 1999

Martin says she draws a line and chooses to live above the line, with happiness, beauty, and love. By this approach, I’ve been living below the line since the election. After 9/11, art pulled me above the line. I don’t know what will this time.

Going to the Jewish Museum certainly wasn’t the answer. Although ostensibly I went for the John Singer Sargent portrait on loan, aching for his bravura splashes of color after the austere monochromes of Martin.

But I was literally swept into the bright noise of Take Me (I’m Yours). This democratic space lets artists express in the moment, and the below-the-line anger oozed through the rooms.


With objects to take ranging from pills to lemon water and t-shirts and ribbons to words on paper and words on the wall, I filled the bag provided. My bright yellow ribbon states “It is not enough to be compassionate” in hot pink serif letters. This was the cleanest saying hung for the taking.


The t-shirt: “freedom cannot be simulated.”


What tore my heart open was the poster created by Jonathan Horowitz before Election Day. I couldn’t bear to take one, although it was probably the most popular object in the exhibit. Now who’s face will join the portraits?


Martin’s Taoism that had so calmed and uplifted me vanished immediately.

I don’t know why I decided to follow through on my ticket purchase for Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat.” But I went and found the violent yelling and seething racism of working class plant workers  just more than I could take.

Yes, the play was written and even opened before the election. I bought my ticket when I could assume my pedestal height to empathize with their struggles for work, which in my privileged way I share, so a connection. I couldn’t make it past intermission.

I get it: working class white America is angry. Now liberal America is angry. What do we do with all this anger? How can we get back above the line?

Untitled, 1960, looks like a textile

Untitled, 1960, looks like a textile

Or do we need to blur the lines or weave the lines? Try something new?

detail; see each one of us showing up

detail; see each one of us showing up



Sweet Charity


In the aftermath of the election, much that I have treasured now has a bitter taste. Even escapist entertainment seems to contain commentary on lost ideals. I’m working on the lessons learned. We’re all different, and we’re all the same. What is it we all want? To be heard and treated with dignity and respect.

Well, not Charity. Sweet Charity will sacrifice anything for love–most definitely her dignity and self respect.
But I’m sure your heart will break as mine did when you hear Sutton Foster sing about it. And you’ll get to see her triple threat in a small off Broadway house. Hard to believe but true.
I kept hearing metaphors in everything she sang. The endless optimism and “she’s a brass band” — so all American.
So when she’s kicked in the chin one more time at the end, what does Charity Hope Valentine sing?
Looking inside me, what do I see?
Anger and hope and doubt
What am I all about?
And where am I going?
You tell me!
For the first time, she sounds bitter.
I resonated with her despair, which I’ve been feeling since the election. I remember Charity as indomitable, but in this production, even she is left alone to make sense of a cruel world. 
And America is stumbling badly, too. Just like Charity. Where are we going?

Is this what protest will look like, as it did in the ’60s?


Loving Kindness

As we wrestle with massive incivility in the American public sphere and greater racial tension than in several decades, today I experienced a microcosm of the issues enmeshed in this current.  And it was helpful.

In my Kabbalah class, we talked about the Tree of Life.  The Tree has always been my deepest connection to Judaism, and each revisit, I learn something new or hear just what I need in that moment.  Today, I felt the cord between Chesed, loving kindness, and Givurah, the judgement and balance needed to most effectively apply our hearts.

Tree of Life

Tree of Life

We talked about our speech, the importance of what we say, and avoiding ‘bad speech’.  Words are the expressions of spirit ( as in, from God came the word), so our speech is holy.  You know that experience of speaking joyfully and how you then become filled with joy.  How different that feels from whining (all words used with intention).  Do what you say you’re going to do, and you will be filled with the deep satisfaction of integrity.

I left class feeling calm, recommitted to kindness, and ready for my encounter with Anna Deveare Smith and her new one-woman show “Notes from the Field.”  Long an admirer of how she makes political and sociological points by giving voice to everyday people, I was interested in how she would bring her reenactments of interviews to the raw topic of racism by the police, our schools, and the justice system.

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When the show started, I grew impatient with the retreads of recent events, the inevitable pain and outrage focused mostly on Freddy Gray.  Take me somewhere new.  I expect this is Smith.

But, I realized, this inhumanity to humans is not new.  Smith’s responsibility is not to say something new, but to be a voice for those not usually heard.  I heard the school principal’s shock when a young man said prison wasn’t so bad because he had enough to eat and could play basketball.  She vowed to stop the school police from arresting students.  Make them stay in school.  Break the pattern.

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I started to hear hope in the possibility of words and actions.  Not be victimized into inaction by incivility of wannabe leaders or cruelty from other forms of institutionalized power.  By Act 2, I resonated with the small uplifts–the prisoner who trains service dogs for the disabled, the teacher who focuses on changing one life, John Lewis who forgave the man who beat him in 1961, now calling him brother.  I spent much of the second act in tears.

We live in a very tough world, and I don’t want to be victimized by it with a continual onslaught of pain.  I don’t want to turn into teflon either.  The Kabbalah suggests a balance—to use good judgement and hold each encounter with loving kindness.  It sounds so simple, but for me, it is the work of a lifetime.

Smiles and Shadows

The New York day was jammed – with heat, with tourists, with smells, and with action.  Three museums, two plays, a movie, and a partridge…

Best of all though was walking the streets and letting New York happen.

Seeing “Skeleton Crew” by Dominique Morrisseau was brilliant enough in itself-so assuredly written and acted, characters thick with their (extra)ordinary struggles that transcend when put in Detroit in 2008.  The genuine acknowledgement of the craft at its peak with sustained applause through two curtain calls.  The wonder of discovering a gloriously talented playwright.

After, I had nowhere to be fast or slow.  As I strolled out the door onto the sweltering street, I smiled at a woman sitting on her stoop (Atlantic is on a residential street in Chelsea), and she smiled.

A tiny women, all bent over, asked, “so how was it?”

“Excellent”…”so good,” a young man and I answered together.

“I’ll get my ticket,” she said tottering toward the theater.

The young man, so pretty and sweet and gay and put together, and I compared notes, admiring the playwright, whom he worked with when he first moved to the City.  Turns out he’s 39, although he looked 23 at most, and an actor.  Of course.   We chatted amiably until parting for the next adventure.

I turned the corner, scanning for Blossom where I was planning to have a vegan burger with the onion ring and vegan bacon inside–crunchy and yummy by the way.  I stopped in front of a movie theater playing “Love and Friendship.”

Nothing feels so good as the cinema on a really beastly day.  Okay, I thought, I’ll just see what time it’s playing.

In 30 minutes.  So I got a ticket, now involving selecting an exact seat.

“You have such beautiful diction,” commented the ticket sales woman.

“I narrate for the blind.”

“See there?  I’m so smart.  I just at knew it,” she said proudly, handing over my ticket as she peered over her cheaters with a smile.

I smiled right back, then went outside to find Blossom.  The girl working as a greeter at the entrance to the theater looked with me across the street.  “I don’t know it,” she mourned, throwing her hands up in resignation.

I went across the street anyway in search and found its tiny storefront camouflaged behind the only tree on the block.

After my burger, I found the same girl stationed by the door, and she seemed delighted I came back to report to her.  We shared a moment about that tree.

The movie based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan promised to be her most biting, with its true antiheroine.  But alas it was unfinished, and the movie feels the same.  Its sour cynicism is enormously amusing though.

After, even though the evening was still oppressively hot, I decided to walk the 20 blocks to the Broadway theater.  Still in Chelsea, virtually everyone responded to my sparkly glasses and goofy grim with a smile right back.  The tall, slim young man waiting for the 8th Ave bus, the bagel peddler, the barista selling iced, cold brew coffee.

My first sip exploded like a crunched, toasted coffee bean in my mouth, round, smooth, and strong.  Was anything ever so delicious?

Of course, entering the Penn Station  area, then Times Square, sobered me up fast, and I got back to people watching with my game face on.  The two girls, all brown flesh and swagger, in their rainbow-colored, twisted balloon crowns.  The three sailor boys in their Navy whites.  Wait!  One was a girl, her blonde hair braided and tucked under her cocked cap, and her thin, wire-rimmed glasses just cloaking her Times-Square-neon blue eyes.  The long, sweaty lines of theater goers waiting for that first whoosh of theater-cold air and relief.

Summer in New York can be horrible, but its neighborhoods and people never are.  The best part of any day.

Wonderful exhibits.  I was captured by the shadows, creating new works of art.

Moholy-Nagy, Twisted Planes, plexiglass and steel, 1946

Moholy-Nagy, Twisted Planes, plexiglass and steel, 1946 at the Guggenheim

Hellenistic Wrestlers

Hellenistic Wrestlers at the Met

Zeus' head and fist

Zeus’ head and fist at the Met

Greek theatrical masks

Greek theatrical masks at the Met

Button and Pie Memories

Today, New York was the stage for nostalgia, reminding me of my mother and my mother’s mother.

My grandmother was a seamstress, quite an extraordinary one according to my mother.  As a girl though, Mom hated wearing her mother’s hand-stitched garments to school, when all the other girls wore store bought.  How she regretted later that she didn’t have any of those garments when she would have appreciated the fine craft my grandmother practiced.

What she did have was her mother’s jar of buttons.

She and I would pull the jar out and gaze at it, jammed with all sizes and colors.  “Nothing ever wasted,” my mother told me, long after her mother had passed.

After my mother had gone, I opened that jar of buttons.  Big mistake!  It let out a stink so intense, it made made me choke.  Something like a cross between formaldehyde and a poorly cleaned public bathroom.  Phwew!

So I had to throw all those buttons, hundreds of them, away.  But not the memory.

Today, I made my first pilgrimage to Tender Buttons, a tiny store on the Upper East Side.

Nothing but buttons.


I bought a button for grandma, a button for mom, and a button for me.

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Czech glass for grandma, a rose for Mom, kitchen kitsch for me

The new musical Waitress is tangentially about pie.  Well, it’s a lot about pie.  Pie and love.

Jessie Mueller in Waitress

I think about pie and love and immediately think about my mother.  One of her best homemade dishes was peach or cherry pie.  While she rolled out the dough, I would have a little bit to play with.  “Roll it like a cigar,” I would giggle.

She would trim the edges of the crust dough, then re-roll that dough out, fill it with cinnamon and sugar, roll it into a log, slice it into little dimes, and bake them for my brother and me to snack on.  Better than the pie!

At the musical, a pie was baking when the doors opened for intermission.  Oh my, the aroma!

My seat mate encouraged me that getting some pie was worth it, and she was right.  The clever little jars of pie were peddled by diner waitresses around the theater.  Apple, key lime, and cookies and cream.  I went for the key lime.

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I certainly wasn’t alone.  Apparently, the baker makes 1000 pie jars per performance.  That’s a lot of happy audience members.  Like me!

Of course, the show was sweet, too –  all puns intended.  Lots of humor balanced the maudlin.  A great comic character is born with this show. Ogie has the two best numbers: “Never Ever Getting Rid of Me,” with its unforgettable choreography, and “I Love You Like a Table.”

Although the music is actually pretty forgettable, the whole experience is so full of delight, you might want to take your mother.

If you’re near her, give her a kiss on the cheek. If not, remember and tell a good story.  Happy Mother’s Day!

The Cold War has its moment

Right now, it seems like the creative culture, in all its forms, is about the Cold War.

There are the two Oscar contenders: Stephen Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” and “Pawn Sacrific”e about Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky when chess mattered.  Both films are gray-washed, cold things, as if we need some kind of visual reinforcement of the plots.  Both are very fine films, the former marginally warmed by Tom Hanks; the latter not at all.

The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor tells the woeful story of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg from the viewpoint of a neighbor.  It’s a harrowing piece of fiction based on the facts.  I dare you to put it down.

I just finished the novel when surprise, the new play with Linda Lavin has a doozy of a plot twist.  Spoiler alert ahead.  Absolutely stop reading now if you’re going to see “Our Mother’s Brief Affair.


Lavin’s character had a long-ago affair, to the shock and discomfort of her adult children.  Turns out, she had that affair with David Greenglass, Ethel’s brother, who named names all the way to the electric chair.

Or did she?  That’s the question we’re left with, as she states she has a moment–a moment when she was really seen.  So what if he was a spy responsible for the gruesome deaths of his family?  She and he had a moment.  Or did they?

The play is clearly the weakest of all these works.  But I was affected by the idea of the importance of moments, in it and them all, and the ramifications those moments can have.

Now, emerging, I hope, from this Cold War moment, I’m really ready for some color and warmth!


P.S. I initially forgot to mention the very fine “Trumbo” in the listings of Cold War movies this season.



Today marked one of my best Christmases in many years.  Why?  Because it was all about the Jews!

Di Goldene Kale

Good thing we got our tickets to “The Golden Bride” of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene many weeks ago.  Our noon performance of this Yiddish operetta was completely sold out.  The New York Times raved about it, and the Jews all headed downtown.

2015-12-25 11.26.04First, we went for our ‘Instant Yiddish’ lesson. “If you’re not fluent after this 15-minute class, you’ll get your money back.”  A little Jewish humor, since, of course, the lesson was free.  And my friend Helen is already fluent.

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During our mini class, the teacher pantomimed his way through the history of Yiddish theater in New York.  From 1880 to the 1949s, Yiddish theater helped immigrants adjust to life in The Golden Medina–the golden land of America–and deal with homesickness and provide some much needed escape from daily hardships.  Broadway as we know it grew out of the musicals of and the immigrants producing shows for the 2nd Avenue theaters.

“The Golden Bride” was first performed in 1923, one of 18 Yiddish shows live in New York at the time.  It toured the country and was continually revived in New York until its last production in 1948.  Until now.

Adam Shapiro (Kalmen) and Company in the National Yiddish Theatre production of 'The Golden Bride (Di Goldene Kale'). Photo by Ben MoodyI can see why the show was so enormously popular.  It’s full of family drama, silly and entangled romances, Shakespearean plot mix-ups, and wonderfully catchy songs.  We were all singing along with the ovation.  Most touching was the reuniting of a divided family, which no doubt the audience could relate to.  And most familiar was the matchmaking scene, which maybe Sheldon Harnick saw before writing his song for “Fiddler.”

Al loved the appropriation of Over There and other patriotic music with plot-driven lyrics in Yiddish.  The American Dream is all over this piece from the Old Country on Act 1 and the realization of that dream in the U.S. In Act 2.

Cameron Johnson in rehearsal

Curiously, the two young-lover leads are not Actor’s Equity, the only in the cast, but they had powerful operatic voices.  We laughed that the tenor looked like a Sean O’Malley, really named Cameron Johnson.  Not terribly Yiddishkeit.

The comedy was great fun and clearly sparked the tropes we see in the Golden Age of musicals, with the serious romantic leads and the comedic secondary couple.

I really felt like an audience member from the 1920s, reveling in a sense of belonging, nostalgia for the Old Country, and pleasure and pride in the new.  Actually quite healing during an often-alienating Christmasmaniacalism season and painful world conditions.

How did we cap this experience?  With Chinese food, of course!

Fresh thinking for government?

With presidential politics revving up, maybe it’s appropriate that I saw two political plays today.  Both offer a reminder of the personal cost of political leadership.

King Charles III,” a Brit transplant to Broadway, speculates on the role of the monarchy in democratic Britain and what would happen if that crafted balance were demolished.  Despite the cloying references to Shakespeare including the iambic pentameter verse, the surprises along the. way elevate this play almost to the level it shamelessly imitates.

Two characters attempt fresh approaches to living with, and opting out of, traditional leadership roles, both rebelling in the name of decency and common sense.  That is until the forces for sameness squash the forces for change.  That tension, I will admit, created a Shakespearean calculus.

Too bad for the abrupt ending that needed audience plants to signal.  Otherwise, the audience clearly would have waited for more.  Instead we were left with an unsatisfied craving.  Or at least I was.  The rest of the audience gave the typical standing O.  Stunned, I wanted to rebel!

The inability to rebel is at the heart of “First Daughter Suite” at the Public Theatre-that hot launching pad of new musicals (most recently “Hamilton”).  Whereas Kate (Prince William’s wife) protests being ‘plastic’ and does something about it, American women in the White House have had less choice.

Somehow Chelsea Clinton escaped the roast/opera.  Music mostly discordant and lyrics often laugh-out-loud funny, the political and life traps of being a woman in the White House from Pat Nixon to the Bush generations are the fodder.

Who can forget the competition between Julie and Tricia Nixon and Tricia’s White House wedding on a rainy day?  Poor Pat.

Amy Carter, who was tormented during the Carter years by the media, gets her own dream fantasy.  The dream is complete with a hilarious, diva-dancing Betty Ford, the too-sweet Rosalynn who assures her that boring, normal life is okay, and spiky Susan Ford who contends that first-daughter Amy will never be normal.   Like Prince Harry in “King Charles III,” maybe Burger King is the answer.

Maybe Chelsea was spared because of Hilary.  Maybe because the Clinton’s protected her from the media.  Maybe because she’s come into her own.

Or maybe there’s a different path now for women in the White House…

Interesting small spaces

When you think about home renovation, kitchen and baths probably pop to mind. But my hunch is you’re not considering the privy.

From the rear Wethersfield, CT, 6-4-14

Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, from the rear

The Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum has you there. Executive Director Charles Lyle proudly took me on a privy tour of the meticulously-restored privies for the three houses. After all, they date back to the late 18th century and that makes them historically significant. Yes, they are listed on the National Register for Historic Places. Plus they’re interesting.

Juxtaposing the historic privy with the modern apartment building next door.  Viva history!

Juxtaposing the historic privy with the modern apartment building next door.  Viva history!

Turns out, two of the privies were moved over time, to the Congregational Church and Old Academy building. A soil test helped bring the Deane House privy home, with its chemical match. All three are now behind their respective houses, although apparently on slightly different sites. No longer used for storage, the privies tell their own stories now.

2015-08-12 11.27.06I have to say that the most sophisticated of the three, a seven-seater, was practically as big as my New York apartment. Charles doesn’t think the family sat together, if you will, though they likely had assigned seats, ranging from papa- and mama-sized to child-sized





Rat-tail lock hanging loose here, and note the heart-shaped bolts above the door handle.

Rat-tail lock hanging loose here, and note the heart-shaped bolts above the door handle.

These are not your grannie’s privy. Truly fancy—hipped rooflines and cornices, paneled doors, and hardware. Note this wonderful rat-tail lock.

I know it’s hard to imagine that a privy might need a new roof. But the three dilapidated structures did. And the Webb House Privy now proudly sports its finial on top again, along with its new cedar shakes.


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Does your privy have a paned window with a view? These do, and the original glass was salvaged for the restoration. Applying a plaster wall and ceiling now is almost a lost craftsman form. But these privies have a new hand-brushed, skim coat of plaster applied over the old.

Yellow pine salvaged from other historic properties, provided by Armster Reclaimed Lumber in Springfield, MA, allowed Charles and the contractor JHS Restoration to match the aged patina of the replaced floorboards to the original. You might also notice the stand for a candle, for those middle-of-the-night runs. These interiors are truly remarkable.

A privy at one end of the garden.  Note the finial at the top of the roofline.

A privy at one end of the garden. Note the finial at the top of the roofline.

Painted colonial red, the privies are coated in the color that Charles thinks signaled the service aspects of home life. The back of these houses are painted red, too, while the fronts are the more fashionable yellow. The back of the house is where slaves and servants worked. Distinctions were made, and so it makes sense for the privies in the rear of the houses were painted that same red.

The base of a privy has been damaged, where a shovel repeatedly knocked the wood to remove the, ahem, fertilizer. Good for composting and for the garden. And the gardens are looking lovely this summer, thanks to the hardworking volunteers.

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So on your next visit to Wethersfield, not only can you visit what’s up front and center, but also the necessities out back. There may even be an idea or two for your next bathroom renovation.

A New Musical

Another small space, the Normal Terris Theater of Goodspeed, currently has a big production. “My Paris” directed by Kathleen Marshall, of “Anything Goes” and many more Broadway hits, is a world-premiere musical about Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.


Clever staging put the actor playing Toulouse-Lautrec one step down from the others, to communicate the artist’s damaged legs and short stature. Plus, the costume designer lengthened his coat and the crotch of his pants, so that his legs looked shorter. Subtle, but noticeable.

Here red doesn’t get relegated to the back, but lives boldly as red wants to do.  Fun to watch the paintings come to life, as you’ll see in this video.

The can-can, the red scarf. It says, vivre la vie, a Lautrec mantra. Well-paced, with a variety of nicely sung songs, I’m guessing this one is Broadway bound in no time. There the spaces will hardly be small and the whoops and twirls will no doubt be broad. Keep a look out.

Growing Old Gracefully

As I’ve been thinking about growing old gracefully, examples pop up everywhere I look.

Today, I visited the historic house where Valerie is on the Board.  The Ward-Heitman House is the oldest in West Haven, built around 1684.  Unlike so many historic homes that find themselves in the way, this one has been allowed to age gracefully in place.  It hasn’t been moved or changed since the early 20th Century.

1 of 5 still-working fireplaces

1 of 5 still-working fireplaces

The house even survived the Revolutionary War when the British attacked West Haven, seemingly because the owners were Loyalists and Church of England.  Ultimately, they were on the losing side, of course,  My guide didn’t comment if that’s why there was a change of ownership.

Original front room, with a Colonial color scheme

Original front room, with a Colonial color scheme

Lydia and her brothers

Louisa and her brothers

The house was built as a stock 2-over-2, two rooms down, two rooms up, until later generations added on for their own purposes.  Louisa Ward married a Heitmann, merging the two families in the house.  While her seafaring brothers (and husband?) were at sea, she decided to build an addition, a proverbial one-room schoolhouse, called a “Dame’s School.”  I don’t have a good explanation for the term, but we can speculate.

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Teacher’s desk complete with a geography book, class bell, hickory switch, and apple

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Every classroom had to have its George Washington picture











At the same time, out of one of the original downstairs rooms from the 2×2 days, the owners ran boutique businesses, first an antiques store, then a tea room.  Not at all uncommon in the early 20th century and through the Depression.

The Ward-Heitmann House seems to have a lot of unanswered questions from its history, but A.R. Gurney wraps up all the questions in his play “Love and Money” quite neatly.  In its current production at the Westport Country Playhouse, the program quotes Gurney, now 84 years old, as thinking this was his last play.  But, he states, the old saying is that Jews say goodbye and then don’t leave, so he’s going to become Jewish and write a couple more.  Power to him!

And this one has legs, moving after tonight’s performance to Signature Theatre Off Broadway, to open with the same cast and set at the end of the month.  Signature is happy to call it their Wold Premier, even as it started here in Connecticut.

“Love and Money” addresses issues Gurney seems to have on him mind–principally, how to be a WASP, as he and his lead character self-define, in an ever-diversifying America.  With his trademark, gentle humor and tight, fast-paced writing, he does it again.  Gives us a smartly-conceived, easy-to-swallow take on a big question.

Cornelia, the character at the heart of this play, has certainly aged with verve, as you’ll see in this video, and the actor Maureen Anderman had a great moment of sharp ad lib.

At one point, the lights went completely off.  The stage was utterly dark.  Anderman said, “I guess we forgot to pay the light bill.”  It was so in character that the audience laughed appreciatively and waited for the play to continue.

Until we learned it wouldn’t.  Some quirk in the lighting board had to be reset, not a new problem at the theater apparently.  The actors had left the stage, and we were entertained by the stage manager with a congenial to-and-fro with the audience, until the lights were back in order.  Then the play picked up just as it left off, not a beat missed, all clearly pros.

Plot-wise, while I was thinking, “uh oh, here comes ‘Six Degrees of Separation’,” Gurney allows Cornelia to out-con the con and have great fun with everyone doing it.  She sums up his apparent philosophy at the end.  She ad libs again, this time in character, about their dinner party for the evening, with a diverse group of guests “who will all do the dishes.”   The play ends as she declares it an opportunity for everyone to get along just fine.

And so she does, and the Ward-Heitmann House does, and we do, too.  Get along just fine, as we age with grace.


On the eve of the publication of Harper Lee’s first manuscript, supposedly found in a safety deposit box, comes another potential classic discovery.  William Inge, the playwright known for “Picnic,” Bus Stop,” and “Come Back Little Sheba,” has a dusted-off play being performed for the first time at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.



“Off the Main Road” stars Kyra Sedgwick and Estelle Parsons, leading a solid cast, together telling a tightly-wound story about a closed microcosm of people, each trying to figure out who they are in relationship to themselves and the cluster.  At its core are 3 women–mothers and daughters.  Their experiences, thoughts, and reactions are grounded and relatable (something I admire when a male creator can accomplish this about women).

No one character is just this or that.  Even the bad-guy is presented in a nuanced way that makes him human, not a type.  With this roundness, the final choice by the Sedgwick character is believable, although you might disagree.  I was neither surprised nor saddened by it.  It seemed inevitable to me, because Inge put the character in a place where she had to make that decision.  Can you tell how hard I’m working to avoid spoilers?

Nothing particularly surprising happens in this play, but the intimate tension is palpable and in the quiet theater, each revelation is accompanied by audience gasps.  I kept thinking how little has changed in the 50 years since the play was written, even as ostensibly women’s choices and roles have.  Inge seems to have touched on something that transcends the period and its social types.  The production has an honesty on issues we think about more readily today, but may have been too raw for 1966.

This rawness may be why this play ended up in a drawer of a renowned playwright.  The program notes offer another explanation–he was out of favor.

It’s a well-crafted play about the truths between people and the twin poles of self-insight and desire.  If you are a classic theater lover, keep your eyes open for this one.  I think it’s less dated and mannered than other Inge works and will be around for a long time to come.


Oklahoma, up close and nightmarish

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Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College

Unlike any version of Oklahoma I’ve seen is the current production at Bard College’s Performing Arts Center.  Yes, the voices are beautiful, the dialogue the same, and most of the songs are familiar.

But this go round, the performance is naturalistic.  No program (until the end) to distract you with any life beyond this moment.  Described as “stripped down” and “unsentimental” by the director, the approach allows “Hammerstein’s blazing, diamond-cut words and Rodgers’s soaring melodies (to be) laid bare for us to discover as if for the first time.”

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Our crock pot of chili and in the rear, the fixin’s for the cornbread

In Act 1, the dress is contemporary, and the songs are sung with a cowboy inflection.  “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” becomes a waltz that Curly sings while strumming his guitar.  He starts by sitting on the picnic table that I shared, while Aunt Eller mixes up the cornbread we’ll eat at intermission.  The chili cooks in crock pots in front of us all.

The actors stay in the same space with the audience throughout the show, all as us as one.  We are part of the Oklahoma Territory.  When Will starts singing about KC being up to date, you might be startled when he starts to dance with the girl right by you.  The dancing is only the most natural, not high falutin’ at all.  At the barn, it’s square dance.  No leaping over tables or show-stopping tap.  No ballet in the dream sequence.

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The band, right in front of me

Ado Annie is a young girl in a halter top and cut-off jeans, cowboy boots, and hair in a side braid.  She tries to explain herself, how she cain’t say no, a capella, her bell-like voice all wanting, before being joined quietly by the six-piece band that includes a banjo, mandolin, and accordion.  She’s just a young girl, not a joke.  Laurie is like her mentor.

The pace moves so fast there’s no time to applaud between songs.  When Laurie and Curly warn each other with the don’t’s in “People We’ll Say We’re in Love,” the singing is so intimate and sweet, we become eaves droppers.  Curly sings tenderly, right into Laurie’s ear, as if only she is supposed to hear.  But we do, too.

Laurie and Curly in an intimate moment

SPOILER ALERT–don’t read past this point if you have any intention of seeing this show.

The biggest shift for me comes with poor Jud.  And here, he is to be pitied.  Longing to be noticed, much less loved, he has a solo I’ve not heard before, “Lonely Room,” an operatic lament sung with soft anguish.

But not before Curly bewitches him with “Pore Jud is Daid”.  A kind of gay trance is created by the staging. First, they talk to each other in complete darkness, showing us what the smoke house Jud lives in is like.  Slowly, as if our eyes acclimate to the dark, we begin to make out the forms of the two men, (actually clarified by projections), sitting very close together, singing the song.

Yes, Oklahoma is about two love triangles, but in this production, the attractions among Curly, Laurie, and Judd are unsettling and completely believable.  With the song in the smokehouse, Jud and Curly are close enough to kiss.  Laurie isn’t blatantly repelled by Jud.  Her attraction to Curly seems ambivalent.  Perhaps this is the actress, who plays the part very low key.  But the attraction isn’t as straight forward as usually played.

Act 2 opens with just the dream portion of “Out of My Dreams.”  And what a nightmare it is.  The music mashes together completely discordant versions of the songs from Act 1.  Laurie stands still in ghostly light.  Curly and Jud both sing “I Cain’t Say No!” to her.  How can anything be right for Laurie, if this is the dream that shows her what she really wants?

Square dancing in the barn, “The Farmer and the Cowman”

Periodically, the naturalistic tone is shattered by the use of a mic, which I think is a big mis-step in the production.  But as that takes us out of the drama and tension building, nothing prepares us for the ending.

Damon Daunno (Curly) and Amber Gray (Laurey) star in director Daniel Fish's experimental retelling of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!

Reprise of “People Will Say We’re in Love” but at a mic by the band

At the wedding party, Jud doesn’t burn down the barn, but instead comes to the newlyweds.  He asks to kiss the bride, which Curly permits.  Jud kisses Laurie on the lips, gently, and one of her arms embraces him.  Then Jud gives Curly a gift.  Curly opens the box to reveal a gun (Curly has sold his saddle, his horse, and his gun to win Laurie’s box lunch at the social).

With no words, but in my mind, the echo of “Pore Jud is Daid,” Curly takes the gun and shoots Jud.  Both Curly and Laurie in wedding white get sprayed with blood. What was Jud thinking?  Is this the inevitable gesture to Curly, that he allows the cowboy to fulfill the promise of their song together?

The town folks, never changing a word of the script, enact the way a community closes around an insider, Aunt Eller especially, forcing an acquittal of Curly in the moment, despite one legal authority’s objections.  Jud is dead, and the girls can mourn him, as the song promises.  Laurie seems stunned, as the show closes with a rousing rendition of “Oklahoma!”  Ignore the ugly and sing, seems to be the message.  The future is bright.

But how can Laurie have a happy marriage to a man who unambiguously murders someone she has some kind of complicated feelings for?  The state may be made up of communities that protect their own, but on the micro level, this marriage has to be doomed.

Jud’s death, so easily dismissed in most productions because he is one-dimensional gross and his violence is so incongruous with the fluffy take on most of the material, here rises to the level of tragedy.

How could I feel good leaving the theater?  I had just witnessed a tragedy and miscarriage of justice.  I noticed many people smiling–the final song calls for a Yippee-yai-eh.  But the theater doesn’t permit children to attend the show.  Its intent is clearly to disturb our comfort with the traditional rendition of Oklahoma.  I’ll certainly never think of this show quite the same way again.

Playin’ it Zany v Safe

While standing in line

While standing in line

The new Whitney Museum building.  I visited today and glad I didn’t go on a weekend.  The lines were long, the galleries were crowded.  Is it worth it?  Here’s my assessment.

I wish the architect/Whitney decision-makers had the courage to do something other than the contemporary art museum factory.  In the mold of MoMA, this place has no personality, with its concrete floors, color-coded walls, and standard museum installation and lighting
Is the work well served?  Yes, I would say so, but its greatest hits mentality doesn’t distinguish itself as did the vision of its wealthy and visionary artist/founder–Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney.  Even less than at the Breur  Building, there doesn’t seem to be room for the quirky, the discovery.

Robert Henri, Gertrude Whitney, 1916

Yes, there’s lots of room to show more work, which is wonderful.  An artist new to me is placed next to a well known work.  It all feels very carefully…curated.  Charming, it is not.  Fresh, it is not.  Bland?  Yes, even with the great works, that’s how I would describe my experience.  Not bad.  No, far from bad.  Just very safe.
Joseph Stella, Brooklyn Bridge, 1939

Joseph Stella, Brooklyn Bridge, 1939

Agnes Pelton, Untitled, 1931 she is new to me, and we are invited to view the work in light of Stella's masterwork

Agnes Pelton, Untitled, 1931
She is new to me, and we are invited to view the work in light of Stella’s masterwork

George Tooker, The Subway, 1950

George Tooker, The Subway, 1950

Louis Guglielmi, Terror in Brooklyn, 1941 Earlier than Tooker's stunning work

Louis Guglielmi, Terror in Brooklyn, 1941
Earlier than Tooker’s stunning work

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The architecture itself has some fun elements, like the terraces on each upper floor, with their good views.  I particularly like the view of this terrace.
The stairwell gives you an interesting industrial view.
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And I had a fun meal at the Studio Cafe on the 8th floor.  The toasts are the quirkiest thing in the building.  I had the brocollini, glazed carrots, and smashed beans with shaved provolone in toast.  Delish.
Definitely not anything rotten there, like at the theater.  “Something Rotten” is as self-consciously zany as the Whitney is tame.  If you love Shakespeare or American musicals, or better yet both, you will definitely get a supreme kick out of the clever silliness and silly cleverness of the word smithing and musical numbers in this new show.

Brian d’Arcy James and Heidi Blickenstaff in “Something Rotten!” Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

What fun to see Brian D’Arcy James do comedy and be so at ease and charming with it.  Christian Borle’s ticks, which I normally can’t stand, work fine here as the rock star, egotistical Shakespeare.
Definite shades of “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Producers” don’t get in the way at all.  After all, wasn’t Shakespeare the ultimate thief?  The more references you catch, the more fun you’ll have.
We, in the audience, wondered which Tony voters would choose as the best–“Something Rotten” or the gorgeous “American in Paris“–apples and oranges if there ever were.  Fortunately, you don’t have to choose.  Get thee to the theater!

Love letter to a theater

The new HVAC system all lit up

The new HVAC system all lit up

The Shubert Theater in New Haven is 100 years old and is being celebrated in a bunch of ways–pivotally, with a facelift of the facility.  New HVAC, a new black box theater, extension of the front to the curb, and restoring the historic marquee.  Can hardly wait to see that!

Now you know me.  I’m in there partying with the historians and actors.  A few weeks ago, I went to Colin Caplan‘s talk on the history of theater in New Haven.  And it’s rich indeed.  So many stories.  Almost every street had a theater, and they all had a story.
In the 1800s, theatrical events were associated with churches.  Believe it or not, Minstrel shows were pseudo-religious.  Soon, say by the 1840s, public assembly halls became the site for public entertainment like theatricals and dances. My favorite was the Livonia Temple of Music which sold pianos and had a music hall upstairs.  In New Haven, all these assembly halls have been torn down or otherwise lost.
The one where Lincoln spoke in 1860 before becoming President has become a bowling alley.  I don’t know what to say about that.  And Dickens, who visited New Haven in 1868, spoke at the opera house which burned to the ground in the 1920s.  Fire was a major theater killer.  Fire proof construction methods, like using steel, started to make a difference.
With job growth came immigrants and the new development of suburbs.  Theaters were everywhere,  I love the idea of the gas station that became an entertainment space at night.  Halls sprung up that catered to particular groups.  The Germania seated 600 and was an early version, built in 1868, that catered to their particular community.
The Northern Italian immigrant Sylvester Poli, a sculptor by trade, became a theater impresario.  In 1893, he opened his first theater, devoted to vaudeville.  Soon he head theaters all through the northeast.  Talk about immigrant success!  And that was based on making the theater affordable for everyone of any income  level.  He built huge palaces seating 2500, such as Poli’s Palace and Carl’s Opera House, which became the Hyperion Theater that showed movies.  This theater-to-movie-palace conversion became a trend in the early 20th century.
Yale was not to be left out.  Woolsey Hall was built in 1901 for the 200th anniversary of the university and was also home for the New Haven Symphony Orchestra.  It houses the largest organ in the world and in the rotunda, a war memorial.  And apparently, it has a ghost.  Why not?  What ghost wouldn’t want to live there?
When the halls converted to movie palaces, people would go to their community, and later suburban, theater during the week, then on Saturday night, go downtown to Woolsey or the Hyperion or one of the other theaters, like the Shubert.
The Shubert Theater was famous for launching plays and musicals to Broadway.  New Haven was already known for a try-out town before a New York run, but now the stakes escalated.  At the Shubert, the notable flop Away We Go! was rewritten by Rodgers and Hammerstein as Oklahoma!  They went on to launch their big shows out of New Haven.  Marlon Brando was barely a mention on the poster of A Streetcar Named Desire in New Haven.  All the big stars played the Shubert, hoping for success in their show to propel on to Broadway.
The Shubert was started by Eastern European Jewish brothers who went on to operate a thousand theaters.  When it was built in 1914, the Shubert was considered ultra modern.  What made it so was the new concept of vertical seating design.  Everyone could have a good seat, when your row rises slightly over the row in front.  We take this for granted, but at the time, the Shubert became a model for new theater construction.
To further celebrate the Shubert, I went to A Broken Umbrella production.  This group writes original, site-specific shows centered on New Haven history.  I’ve seen fun shows on bicycles, corsets, and the Erector Set.  Of course, I was all over the original musical “Seen Change” about the Shubert.
Seen Change!
The original score is a jazzy upbeat thing, punctuated by some pretty great tap dancing.  The plot, like any good musical, is thin.  A stagehand knocks over the ghost light–that light that is always lit in the theater.  Oh no!  Now strange things start happening, as people from the Shubert’s distant past come to life and together, all try to help a composer-lyricist finish a musical started in 1922.
Taft Hotel with its Tiffany glass dome

Taft Hotel with its Tiffany glass dome

The show moves around, starting in the lobby, then moving to the Taft Hotel next door, with its speakeasy past.  The actors stayed here, using the back passage to get to the Shubert, avoiding adoring crowds.  The show’s final act takes place in the theater.  I was seated for the final act right behind two of the actors.  It was intermission.  We chatted.  I asked, “Are you going to sing?”  The couple, portraying the show’s backers, were equivocal.

Well, of course they sang.  They jumped up and ran up the aisle and continued to be part of the madcap denouement.  It was all silly, good fun.
To think that New Haven was important on the theater landscape for so long.  And even as Broadway tryouts have moved to the Berkshires and the Shubert plays retreads on tour, New Haven still can parlay a show or two to the Great White Way.  A glimmer of the theater’s past glory–its legacy of architectural innovation–lives on, sadly, only in suburban cinemas, in which success is measured by the amount of parking.

Memory (and loss)

I had a busy day in New York today with four museums, a three-mile walk, two plays, and one friend.  No partridges or pear trees, but easily 100,000 tourists.

The most memorable painting was Velazquez’s Old Woman Cooking Eggs at the Frick.  We don’t see too much Velazquez here in the U.S., so make a point to see it while it’s visiting from Scotland.  You’ll also get to see a luscious Sargent I’ve only seen in the books.  You could eat it with a spoon.  Both brought back the pleasures of study, as another gallery visitor and I talked about Foucault’s essay on Velazquez and Las Meninas.  Ah, the good ol’ days.




Piwyac, the Vernal Fall, 300 Feet, Yosemite

The theme of memory, and it’s concomitant idea–loss–started to tie my disparate day together.  At the Met, Carleton Watkins‘ remarkable 1861 and 1865 albumen prints capture a Yosemite that really only exists in memory now.  Imagine carrying huge glass plate negatives on the backs of his dozen mules to reach the vantage points he made famous.  And those silken photographs are almost other-worldly beautiful.

While Annie Liebowitz is known for her evocative photographic portraits, she too has made landscape prints, now at New York Historical.  These are basically memory pieces, of places that are significant to her.  But her printing manipulation left me cold in a way her portraits never do.  Even as she may be commenting on the tendency of memory to exaggerate, the over-saturation of color feels unnecessary and inauthentic.

My favorite image from the show; Niagara Falls, 2009

Not so the deeply touching, wrenching really, performance of xx, the mother in The Oldest Boy, a play by Sarah Ruhl in the intimate Mitzi Newhouse at Lincoln Center.  Intimacy is important, as we enter into the sweet, mystical storytelling complete with Buddhist monks, chants, and Chinese Opera dancers.  The beautiful staging opens up from a living room to Dharamsala in India, the refuge of Tibetans.
James Saito, Celia Keenan-Bolger and Jon Norman Schneider

What if your child were a reincarnated Lama?  This mother, a philosopher of religions and student of literature, suffers the loss of her teacher, as does one of the Lamas.  His teacher has been reborn as her son, passing remarkable tests of memory across lives, as a three year old.

At times, the writing is a bit pedantic.  Religion is easy until it becomes inconvenient.  We want our able-bodied mom to take care of our children, until she’s not, and then we put her in a home.  Americans  always want choice and to have it our way.  The irony of using “attachment parenting” when Buddhists believe in non-attachment.

Still witnessing the raw-emotional process of this mother, played by Celia Kennan-Bolger,  letting go of her child moved me more than any theater I’ve seen in an age.  It was tender and genuine.  Beautiful and old fashioned in a way you wouldn’t expect of Ruhl.

The poetry of the set

As are the 40 years worth of annual photographs of the four Brown sisters, taken by Nicholas Nixon, the whole series now on view at MOMA.  Hot tip!  You don’t have to stand in the horrible lines, pay the highway robbery entrance fee, or tolerate the beast of a crowd for Matisse’s cut-outs.  These gems are in the lobby–granted probably the most challenging place imaginable for a meditation, I bet even for a monk.


But do.  Meditate.  Watch these girls grow up, face life (and the camera) or not, lean for support, stand defiant…and survive.  Poignant, real, memories made tangible.  You may even feel a kind of loss as you let them go.  They are women you want in your life.

The Brown sisters, in 2014.



Shakespearean Take on the Civil War

The way the American Civil War forced choices about identity fascinates me.  Suzan-Lori Parks takes this on through her particular lens with her three-act “Father Comes  Home From the Wars.”

The play follows the choices made by Hero, a slave who serves his ‘boss-master’ fighting in the war.  The first part shows him wrestling against his conscience, amidst his slave comrades, lover/wife, and ‘father’.  With a Hamlet-like indecision, it takes other’s actions to get him to move forward.

Parks is referencing the hero’s journey, too, particularly Homer’s “Odyssey.”  Hero even takes the name Ulysses later in the play, the Roman name for Odysseus, as well as the Union general, and another slave is named Homer.

But it’s the Shakespearean ties that intrigue me.  The second act features a Shakespearean soliloquy by the boss-master that is as touching as it is surprising, as well as unveiling the surprise identity of their Union soldier captive.

Hero continues a motif of trying on clothes to try on new identities.  Still, he can’t  imagine a future in which his value isn’t expressed monetarily.  His choice at the end of the second part is disappointing, but completely in character.

By the third act, the tone changes dramatically, with a Greek chorus of runaway slaves, or maybe they’re more like the three witches of the Scottish play.  And Hero’s dog makes an appearance as a truth-telling Fool.  While the other characters change and let go, adjusting to shifting circumstances, Hero plays out the same drama of loyalty versus his true identity.  He admits to trading his “soul” for values he seems to have no choice in enacting.

Parks has made a Shakespearean play about the greatest tragedy in the American experience, perhaps even greater than the annihilation of Indian cultures, although with much the same results.  Some of the allusions are heavy-handed, such as the use of contemporary slang and dress, notably in the third part.  I think her audience gets the relevance and crippling legacy of slavery today, without crippling not only one, but two of her characters.  Still I can’t imagine the plot without the repercussions of the physical wounds of these characters.

In part two, the characters debate which wounds are worse.  Hero says he would choose his legs, while the Yankee wounded in the leg says he now has to choose his arms.  The specious choice of which body parts are best to preserve closes the play as Hero says his hands are now his own.

But are they?  His self-deception makes him a tragic victim, much like his Shakespearean namesake.  She as a passive victim is rescued.  This Hero is neither heroic nor saved.  It’s a sad business that Parks elevates and elucidates for the ages.

Freedom from Want

As you know, my argument is that we’re in another economic depression now, and my day in New York made the comparisons to the 1930s striking.

Thomas Hart Benton Instruments of Power America Today mural series 1930-1

Thomas Hart Benton
Instruments of Power
America Today mural series

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America Today

I started at the Met, where I finally got to see America Today, the murals by Thomas Hart Benton that have been re-homed from the New School.  Over the years there, students had rammed chairs into the murals, and they were otherwise degrading.  Now revitalized in glorious color, made richer through the darkened exhibition space, the murals tell the story of America in a moment–1930-1, when the Great Depression was just sucking away the country’s vitality.


Reginald Marsh The Bowery 1930

Reginald Marsh
The Bowery
1930 an artist also known for pulsating energy


Benton celebrates though.  America’s pulse, its chaos and determination, its strengths and its smarts.

Certainly compared with Reginald Marsh’s nearby The Bowery from the same year, 1930, the murals are propagandistically optimistic.  The glory of work, the ingenuity of technology, the voice of entertainment, all punctuated with clarifying red.

Benton loved red.




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America Today

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America Today








  Look at that red and those gestures!

Pieter Coecke van Aelst
Conversion of St. Paul
Look at that red and those gestures!


While the curators draw connection to Baroque painting as an influence on Benton’s energetic compositions, I was also taken by the drama of the Renaissance tapestries, a newly opened, scintillating exhibition at the Met.  Surely Benton was influenced by the Renaissance body and borrowed from religious ecstasy for his modern passions.





Jackson Pollack Pasiphae 1943

Jackson Pollack


Detail America Today

Detail America Today


And where would Jackson Pollack be if he hadn’t been under the influence of his teacher’s, Benton’s, quivering, pulsating storytelling?  And Benton was completely modern, as you can see here.

But the art historian digresses.


Back on point, we, too, today crave celebrity entertainment and the refuge of technological wizardry to forget our troubles with work and the sour economy. We like to think of America’s strength, even as evidence shows the contrary.

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From the Met, I walked over to the newly-open-for-tours Roosevelt House.  After Sara Roosevelt’s death, in 1942, Hunter College bought the house and has been using it for classrooms.  Just about the only thing left from the quiet wealth of the Roosevelts is the staircase bannister.  I ran my hand up the rail where Eleanor may have, too. I haven’t washed my hand since!

I joined a tour/lecture, led by a history doctoral student.  As he told us about FDR’s and Eleanor’s accomplishments, I was most taken by the Four Freedoms speech, so relevant today.  Only the names have changed.  Have we progressed at all?

I was interested in the speech’s afterlife.  Norman Rockwell had a hard time getting support to make his monumental paintings of the same name.  Finally, the Saturday Evening  Post printed the series, which became phenomenally popular, driven by a Bentonesque vision of America.  Then the war bonds office came up with a program.  For an $18.75 war bond purchase, you would receive a set of the four posters.  And the rest is history.

Or is it?  How much do we tolerate freedom of religion post 9/11?  In light of a string of natural disasters and Ebola, how free from fear are we?  In an era of political correctness, changing mores, and lax gun laws, are we really free to speak our minds?

Grand CAnd freedom from want?  That issue was actually secondary in “Grand Concourse,” now at Playwrights.  Yes, it takes place in the Bronx today in a soup kitchen.  Yes, one of the four characters is a homeless man who teeters on the ability to get and hold a job and function well,  but I think playwright  Heidi Schrek uses her setting as a metaphor, a rumination on the nature of giving and how generosity of spirit can get twisted.  People younger than I am, though, may see the play through different eyes.  Check it out, and see what you think.

Regardless, may you be free from want this harvest season, on all levels of body and being.

Remarkable Minds

Being in the mind of the boy with Asperger’s Syndrome from “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” is amazing, nightmarish, poetic, angry, funny, noisy, harrowing, despairing, and remarkable–sometimes all at the same time.  I wondered how the book would get staged, and it’s a thing of chaotic beauty and wonder.  The staging with its ever-flexible grid set and the acting are breathtaking.  We are inside his mind, and his mind becomes his body, lifted, swung, tumbled, hurtled, crouching, collapsing.

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My seat was on the left center aisle on the first row.  I saw the goosebumps on the boy’s arm and could have stroked that arm as he squatted right in front  of me, in a quiet moment.  Close enough to see a tear smear his eye.  This boy wasn’t acting.  He was Christopher.  At the end when he asks, “can I do anything?” three yearning times with no answer from the other actor before the blackout, I wanted to scream “yes!”

This is some piece of theater, and if you want to amplify the experience, take in the powerful show of Norman Lewis and Lee Krasner at the Jewish Museum.


Norman Lewis, Twilight Sounds, 1947

Norman Lewis, Twilight Sounds, 1947


Their calligraphic paintings especially work like Christopher’s mind.  Lewis’ lines are almost dainty in their expression, while Krasner deliciously glopped and carved the paint on her ironically carefully-constructed compositions.

Lee Krasner,  Stop and Go, 1949

Lee Krasner, Stop and Go, 1949













Many think she taught her husband Jackson Pollack a thing or two about painting.

Lee Krasner, Noon, 1947

Lee Krasner, Noon, 1947


And given these works from the late 1940s, before Pollack’s breakthrough paintings in the 1950s, you can see how.  Like so many others, she back-seated her career for his craziness, and we’re not better as a result.



Lee Krasner, Untitled, 1949





Still you can revel in the works of this small show and enter the worlds of all of these remarkable minds.

Lee Krasner, Self-Portrait, 1939

Lee Krasner, Self-Portrait, 1939


The theater of quirky mansions and living history

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What fun to be welcomed into Eagle’s Nest, the Vanderbilt mansion on Long Island, by Coco Chanel.  Her heavily accented English was a bit hard to understand, but there’s no doubting her pride in appearances.  She was very straightforward in advising, “the best pearl is the one that looks good on you.”  William Vanderbilt insisted all his women wear pearls, and you should see the size and number of strands in the necklace his wife Rosamund wore swimming!

Given the chance, I would have engaged Coco on her belief that “a woman who does not wear perfume has no future.”  But alas, I was one of a large group of 1932 donors to the Huntington Hospital Fund.  Vanderbilt promised us all a personal tour in exchange for our generosity, then promptly rushed off the New York.  I think he was avoiding us.

So he foisted his tour on Coco, his Irish cook Delia O’Rourke, Ellin Berlin (Irving’s wife), his brother Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, and his crisply cold mother-in-law Agnes Lancaster.

I met Coco (2nd left), the mother-in-law (seated center), brother Harold (back center in red bow tie), dear Ellin (in red necklace, outfit by Coco), and Delia (middle row, 2nd right)

They managed to show us about the house, while also telling stories about themselves.  Harold is darn proud of winning the America’s Cup.  He and his brother are into cars and boats.  William has 10 yachts and was attracted to this Long Island site because of the deep water harbor for his boats.  Naturally.

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He is credited with bringing the first automobile to the U.S. from France.  This roadster is from 1904, and he won a race in it by going 92 mph.  Whoa!



Things were pretty calm among the various guides, except for Coco and Delia, the cook, who had a ‘lively’ discussion about dinner.  Delia took it like a champ, before sighing she’d get a bucket and go dig up some clams.  Coco ducked off for her meeting with Vogue.

Delia told us about all the meals she had to plan–3 a day each for the nursery, 28 staff, and family and guests.  Each had a different menu.  It takes three hours to plan the meals with Mrs. Vanderbilt, and great project management!  All the food has to be top drawer, and she said the staff are her biggest critcs.  “Morale is high when the food is good” is the motto of the house staff.  She typically works from 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.  No wonder, she values the precious key to the wine cellar, saying this is where she likes to end her day.

2014-08-30 12.52.28She seemed to have the most knowledge of the house, which Vanderbilt designed and built.  It reflects his eclectic, offbeat taste, as a Spanish style mansion, filled with stuff he bought from around the world.  Yes, there’s your whale shark, mummy, and shrunken heads.

But also he swept up monastery furnishings.  Seems a bit like the DuPont/Winterthur aesthetic.  Buy it all, buy it now.  Choir benches, a refectory table for the dining room table, the sacristy cabinet intended for monks’ robes holding linens, the alms counter, with its slots for coin donations, serving as a sideboard.

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Ellin showed us some furnishings and art, which he collected for their appearance, not their meaning.  Medieval works in the hall–just like how they look.  Don’t care about religion.

She was my favorite, because she’s “saucy but amusing,” and I liked hearing her stories about her marriage.  Did you know that Irving wrote “Always” for her?  But even better, he signed over the royalties for the song to her (he did likewise for “God Bless America,” benefiting Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts).  That set her up for life.  Although we didn’t get to stay, Irving was to play the 1270-pipe organ that night, with 6 p.m. cocktails.  I’m not much of a fan of organ music, but hearing Berlin play Berlin…that would have been fun!

Nice view

Nice view

Mrs. Lancaster arrived six weeks after the honeymoon and never left.  You can see why.

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She is a very proper lady, with her hat (indoors) and gloves.  I did appreciate her showing us her daughter’s dressing room, which with mirrors on 3 sides, meant that Rosamund didn’t have to strain to see herself from all sides.  She designed her own closet, and it was functionally clever.  Her rose marble bath was, well, over the top.

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But even with the Biltmore fortune, the place has some noticeable need of repair.

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Maybe not as decrepit looking as Gillette Castle, designed to look like a craggy Romantic ruin.  Its Romantic setting, looming over the Connecticut River, just begins to tell the story.

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Nice view

Nice view








William Gillette was a theater guy who made his fortune, yes, in the theater.  Yes, really.  Pre-Hollywood, he did quite well acting, playwriting, and patenting set design innovations.

You’re wondering, how could that make him a fortune?  Probably, it came from his most famous role–Sherlock Holmes.  He worked with Conan Doyle to make Holmes more theater friendly.   Gillette gave the character the deerstalker hat and pipe.  “Elementary, my dear Watson” was his, too, apparently.  Soon Gillette, who played the role some 1300 times, was so identified with the character, that people thought Holmes was real.  His castle became known as ‘Sherlock’s Castle’.

After 60+ years in the theater, Gillette decided to retire to Connecticut.  Like Vanderbilt, he designed and built his home, which took over 4 years, completing it in 1919.  He filled it with more of his inventions and designs with plucky Holmesian ingenuity.

Like the Vanderbuilts, he dabbled in railroads, building a track, bridges, and tunnels around his castle.  Plus his own Grand Central station.  Just for fun.

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View from Grand central

View from Grand Central








Inside and out, the castle is constructed of local limestone, giving that massive appearance of a medieval castle.

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For the inside, he hired master carpenters to carve wood wall paneling, ceilings, and more throughout the three story structure, all based on his designs.  Each door is unique, and he designed the clever window locks and lights, too.  He scaled the stair rails to be short so he would look even taller than his 6′ 4″.


From the balcony, where Gillette could spy on his guests via strategically placed mirrors, you also get a view of teh table with hidden cat potties...

From the balcony, where Gillette could spy on his guests via strategically placed mirrors, you also get a view of the table with hidden cat potties…


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Gillette adored cats and had lots of them.  Weirdly, he designed this table for the 1500 sf Great Hall, to hide cat toilets inside.  Hmmm.  Not every idea was a winner.





You gotta love the trick cabinet for the bar, with a locking mechanism useful during Prohibition, since when closed, the bar looks like part of the wall.  He loved to fool his guests, too.  Since the trick involved no simple lock, but a series of levers and secret parts that had to be pressed just right, his guests struggled to get inside it.  Gillette could enjoy their frustration from the “surveillance” mirrors he placed strategically under windows, effectively hiding them.

Here in the stairway The hidden door is right in the center, not the open door.  It Is very hard to see.

Here in the stairway, the hidden door is right in the center, not the open door. It is very hard to see.



After all that, the third floor art gallery, just as he left it, was a bit of a let down.  Long live the quirk!

The study

The study

Love the light swithc, which looks like railroad pulls

Love the light switch, which looks like railroad pulls