Monday, December 5, 2011

Off Broadway: Neighbourhood Watch

If it is true that “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions,” then it is more than likely that, on its way there, it must pass through The Blueberry Hill Development, an imaginary dystopia envisioned by Alan Ayckbourn as the setting for his 75th play, Neighbourhood Watch.  Produced by the acclaimed Stephen Joseph Theatre of Scarborough, UK, Neighbourhood Watch is currently making its US premiere at Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theaters and is the fourth of Ayckbourn’s plays to do so.

The Blueberry Hill Development is a British, middle class, suburban community, overlooking he Councillor Mountjoy Estate which is a lower class community, perhaps even a slum, at the foot of the hill below it.  The Mountjoy Estate may be home to any number of thieves and ne’er-do-wells but the denizens of Blueberry Hill are no bargains themselves.  Rather, Blueberry Hill appears to house a motley assortment of saints and sinners, victims and victimizers, paranoids, sociopaths, thugs, arsonists, and sexual deviants who, somehow, someway, have managed to hold it all together and maintain a viable community (albeit one suffering from the typical ills of modern suburban living such as petty crime and vandalism).  Or at least the residents of Blueberry Hill have managed to hold it all together until the arrival of Martin Massie, a God-fearing messianic Christian (Matthew Cottle) and his adoring and equally God-fearing Christian sister, Hilda (Alexandra Mathie).

Shortly after the Massies’ arrival at Blueberry Hill, on the day of their housewarming party, Martin encounters a trespasser on his property, a young man who appears to be making a getaway with goods stolen from the home of Martin’s next door neighbors, Bradley Luther (Phil Cheadle) and his young wife Magda (Amy Loughton).  Martin manages to retrieve the goods and returns home to co-host his housewarming party with Hilda, while the youth escapes and continues on his way, presumably to his home in the Councillor Mountjoy Estate.

Upon returning home, Martin meets and greets his neighbors as they arrive for the party: Rod Trusser, a paranoid personality seemingly obsessed with guns, police and security (Terence Booth); Dorothy Doggett, a mousy, fearful widow and the neighborhood gossip (Eileen Battye); Gareth Janner, a strange little man, cuckolded by his wife and intrigued by medieval and colonial instruments of punishment and torture devices (Richard Derrington); Amy, Gareth’s promiscuous, adulterous and alcoholic wife (Frances Grey); and Magda, a music teacher, who arrives alone, without her husband Luther.  (Several other residents of the development who we hear about fail to show up and we never actually get to meet them.  They include Lee Wrigley and his sons, Dirk and Duggie who are thugs and arsonists, as well as Cissy and Sindy, a lesbian couple,  but, although we never actually meet any of them we do get to feel as if we know them and they come to play significant roles in the play.)

As the party gets underway, talk turns to issues of community safety and security, the desirability of building a protective fence around the development, whether or not residents should acquire guard dogs, and the establishment of a community neighborhood watch group.  All reasonable concerns and questions to be sure – until matters get way out of hand.

Ayckbourn’s morality play goes on to chronicle the history of the devolution of this once rather ordinary suburban community as a consequence of its residents implementation of these various safety and security concerns, through to its apocalyptic end.  And one is left to ponder just how much of the blame for causing that apocalypse should be placed on the paranoid, thuggish and sociopathic members of the community and how much more justifiably might be attributed to the supposedly well-meaning efforts of those good God-fearing Christian folk, Martin and Hilda Massie.

Ayckbourn is a highly talented writer and virtually all of his plays, including this one, are well worth seeing   But having said that, this play does fall a bit short of what one has come to expect of him.  It is heavy-handed to a fault – did he really have to name three of his principal characters Martin, Luther and Magda to get his point across? – and it is overburdened with excessive convoluted secondary stories of child and spousal abuse, sado-masochism and repressed lesbianism.  The play is good but it could have been better.

Ayckbourn not only wrote the play but directs it as well and he does a fine job of that.  The entire cast performs more than competently but the true standouts are Alexandra Mathie as Hilda and Matthew Cottle as Martin.  They are both superb.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Lincoln Center: Blood and Gifts

Bernard White as Abdullah Khan in Blood and Gifts.  Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Blood and Gifts by J.T. Rogers, now being staged at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater, is the first play we’ve seen since returning home from Africa and it was terrific.  If there are a lot more shows like this in town right now, we might even become more reluctant to travel out of New York.  Indeed, I usually attempt not to review plays before their official openings but I thought that Blood and Gifts was so good that I’m making an exception in this case.  Opening night is not until November 21st but I just wouldn’t want you to miss it.

Set in 1981-91, the play tells the story of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan which culminated in the Russians being forced out of the country by the mujahideen, Afghanistan’s poorly armed but determined resistance fighters.  The play deals with the convoluted relationships that existed throughout the period between the US intelligence community and its counterparts in Britain (MI6) and the Soviet Union (the KGB), as well as with the relationships between the CIA and the US Senate, the United States and the mujahideen, America and Pakistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and on and on.  It is a tale of of international espionage, diplomacy and foreign policy run amok, of promises and lies, assurances and betrayals, crosses and double crosses, and Rogers has told it brilliantly.

On another level, of course, the play can be seen as a metaphor for what is happening in Afghanistan today, with some of the principal actors having assumed slightly altered roles.  Is the US now playing the role that was so disastrously played by the Soviet Union twenty years ago while the Russians have left the stage entirely (although Pakistan is still being Pakistan, Great Britain still Great Britain, and Afghanistan still Afghanistan)?  Has America learned nothing from its past mistakes in Iran and Vietnam so that it is now doomed to repeat them?  Whether you are a mainstream Republican who supported George Bush’s initial decision to invade Afghanistan in the wake of Al Qaeda’s attack on the US on 9/11, or a Democrat who now supports Barack Obama’s “surge,” or a libertarian who agrees with Ron Paul that we never should have gotten into Afghanistan in the first place and that we now should just get out - wherever you might position yourself along the political spectrum - it would be worth your while to see this play if only to enable you to see things in better perspective.  And it should go without saying that for our elected representatives, this play should be required viewing.

Moreover, on yet another level (and perhaps this is the most important of all), this is a story of human relationships, of husbands and wives, parents and children, and especially of fathers and sons and how man’s evolutionary imperative to carry on his line may trump all other considerations.  Indeed, I believe that the “Gifts” of the title does not refer to the military, political or financial aid given to the Afghans by the United States, Great Britain, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia but rather to the players’ children and particularly to their sons as being “gifts from God.”  It is no coincidence, I think, that during the course of the play, Judy, the wife of James Warnock, the CIA station chief in Pakistan, is pregnant with their first child; that Gemma, the wife of Simon Craig, Warnock’s British counterpart, is pregnant as well; and that the wife of Dmitri Gromov, Warnock’s Russian counterpart, while not pregnant, is having her hands full raising the Gromov’s rebellious daughter Masha on her own in Dmitri’s absence.  And it is not until the play’s very climax that we learn of the son of Abdullah Khan, the mujahideen leader, and suddenly the entire play takes on new meaning.

Rogers, as I already have noted, has written a terrific play.  But the play’s success is not just due to him.  It is also a credit to its director, Bartlett Sher, who has maintained the play’s momentum through an immense number of scene changes from Washington, DC to Islamabad to the mountains of Afghanistan, without missing a beat.  And, of course, to the play’s superb cast led by Jeremy Davidson as James Warnock, the CIA agent who must negotiate the delicate and dangerous lines between his British, Soviet and Pakistani counterparts, America’s own political leadership, and the Afghan mujahideen, while battling his own demons; Michael Aronov as Dmitri Gromov, Warnock’s Russian nemesis in Pakistan, whose personal life also ends up impinging on his political persona; Jefferson Mays as Simon Craig, Britain’s MI6 agent in Pakistan (and a Jew to boot!) who comes closest to stealing the show; Gabriel Ruiz as Colonel Afridi, the head of Pakistan intelligence (ISI) in Islamabad (who has his own agenda); and Bernard White as Abdullah Khan, the Afghan leader who has secrets of his own.  Kudos to them all.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Our African Journey: A Look Backward…and Foreward

Sue and I were married on October 29, 1961.  Over the next half-century, we traveled fairly extensively, usually together but sometimes one or the other of us alone on business trips.  We traveled throughout  Western Europe (England, Ireland, France, Holland, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, et al); throughout the Far East and Southeast Asia (China, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, et al); throughout the United States, of course, visiting most states at one time or another, including Alaska and Hawaii; throughout the Caribbean (too many islands to mention); to Egypt, Brazil, Greece, Mexico, Canada, Russia….  I could go on but you get the idea.

Some of those trips were truly magical.  We sailed the canals of France in Alsace-Lorraine.  We cruised the Mediterranean Sea, docking at ports in Mykonos, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt.  We stayed at Cap d’Antibes on the French Riviera and sailing on a private yacht to St. Tropez, being greeted there by the paparazzi as if we actually were celebrities.  We gambled at Monte Carlo.  We attended the Montreal Olympics in Canada as guests of ABC.  We scaled the pyramids at Chichen Itza and Uxmal in the Yucatan and climbed the Great Wall of China.  I lectured to budding capitalists in the former headquarters of the Communist Party in Rostov-on-Don in Russia during that short-lived period (post-Gorbachev but pre-Putin) during which the world still believed that that country might yet develop into some semblance of a democratic state.  We loved it all.

But none of it could compare to the African trip we just completed.

I think there are three reasons for that.  First, this African vacation was a celebration of our 50th Wedding Anniversary and that alone is so momentous an event as to have made it something truly special.  Second, this trip was a gift from our son, Adam, and daughter-in-law, Jen, and that made it all the more special.  And third, while all of our other travels focused on people, places and things, this one focused on animals in the wild, a truly new experience for us.

So, in a way, this trip can be described as having been the culmination of our last 50 years of travel.  But that is not to be understood as the culmination of a lifetime of travel because, God willing, our lifetimes are still going strong.  Indeed, even as we’re warmly remembering our experiences on the final trip of our first half century together, we’re planning the first trip of our second half-century for next year: a trip to the Galapagos with our grandson, Ezra, in celebration of his Bar Mitzvah. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Our African Journey: Days 14-15, Chobe Chilwero to NY

Thursday, October 27.  We rose at 7 AM, had our last breakfast at the lodge, bade our hosts goodbye and checked out.  We were about to retrace the steps that had led to the last leg of our journey.

We were transferred in one of the lodge’s game drive vehicles to the road from Botswana to Zimbabwe where we met the O.E. representatives who drove us in their car to the border between the two countries and assisted us through Botswana immigration and customs.  We then were handed off to another O.E. representative who assisted us through Zimbabwe immigration (on entering the country) and who then drove us to Victoria Falls where we again were assisted through Zimbabwe immigration and customs (this time on leaving the country).  Finally we boarded the SAA flight from Victoria Falls to Jo-burg (optimistically sending our baggage on through all the way to JFK).  When we arrived in Jo-burg, we met our final O.E. representative, went through South African immigrations and customs and checked in for our return flight to NY.

We had about four hours time before boarding that last flight which we spent shopping in the airport shops.  Then on to the plane for our 16 hours flight to JFK.  At 6:30 AM on Thursday, October 28, we landed at JFK, picked up our baggage (which actually had arrived after having been sent through all the way from Zimbabwe) and then through US immigration and customs.  We were met by our driver who drove us into Manhattan and we were home.  It was about 9 AM in NY, more than 30 hours after we left Chobe Chilwero (adjusting for the time difference).

So, all things considered, would we go back to Africa?  In a New York minute!

I’ll be posting one final comment on it all tomorrow. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Our African Journey: Days 9-13, Chobe Chilwero

When we arrived at the Chobe Chilwero Lodge on Sunday, October 23, we were shown to our cottage which was even more sumptuous than the digs we stayed in at River Bend. Among other things, we had two showers, one indoors and one outdoors in our private fenced in backyard, a gazebo-like outdoor dining area, complimentary sherry in our room, and a mini-bar stocked with whatever we wanted, all complimentary.  As it turned out, the food at Chobe Chilwero was disappointing but that’s the only thing that was.  The wines served with meals were all good.
Entrance to our accomodations at Chobe Chilwero Lodge
We met our guide, Kerby, who took us out on our first game drive shortly after we arrived.  We told him that Joe, our guide at River Bend, had assured us that we’d see a leopard at Chobe and Kerby also assured us that we likely would.  Indeed, when on the grounds of the lodge itself, we were expected to call for an escort to accompany us after dark (to and from dinner, for example) because leopards (as well as some poisonous snakes) appear on the lodge grounds themselves from time to time.  We needn’t have worried about that: we never saw a leopard or a poisonous snake on the grounds of the lodge during the entire time that we were there.  And that, of course, was great.  What was not so great, however, was that on our first game drive at Chobe, we didn’t seen any leopards either, although we did see lots of other animals, especially elephants.

Impala and elephants at Chobe Chilwero

We returned to the lodge around 7 PM in time for cocktails.  Dinner was at 8 PM.  And after dinner, we retired to our king-size bed, covered in mosquito netting, for a well earned night’s sleep.
Our bedroom at Chobe Chilwero Lodge

Monday, October 24.  Our morning game drive began at 7 AM, later than the drives we’d gone on at River Bend but no matter.  Lots of animals – but still no leopard.  Back to the lodge for a pleasant buffet lunch, the best meal of our stay at Chobe Chilwero.  A nap in the afternoon.  And then, instead of an afternoon game drive, a boat ride on the Chobe River.

Lions at Chobe Chilwero
The Chobe River marks the border between Botswana and Namibia and you can see herds of elephants on the Namibia side from the Botswana side.  You also can see Sedudu Island in the middle of the river, an island that was the subject of a territorial dispute between Namibia and Botswana but which ultimately was determined to belong to Botswana.  Herds of elephants swim from the island to the Botswana mainland and back again at different times of the day and seeing that, especially seeing the maternal care afforded baby elephants who are just learning how to swim, was one of the high points of our trip.
Elephants swimming across the Chobe River
The Chobe River is also home to hippos and crocodiles and we enjoyed seeing them as well.  But nothing really compared to the swimming elephants.  At the end of our boat ride, we returned to the lodge for cocktail hour and dinner.  On the menu that night was grilled crocodile and I adventuresomely opted to try it.  My mistake.  There is a good reason that one seldom sees grilled crocodile on restaurant menus in New York.

Hippos in the Chobe River

Crocodile on the bank of the Chobe River
Before going out on another game drive with Kerby at 7 AM the following morning (Tuesday, October 25), we were visited by a host of baboons right outside our front door.  And on the game drive itself we saw any number of animals, including another pride of lions and lots and lots of elephants.  But still no leopard.  The clock was running down but, despite the fact that I was eager to see a leopard, we opted to go on a boat ride that night instead of another game drive.  We really wanted to see more of those swimming elephants.
Baboons in our front yard at Chobe Chilwero
More elephants at Chobe Chilwero
And we did.  It was an even better boat ride than the first one.  Hippos.  Crocodiles.  And those marvelous swimming elephants.

...and more swimming elephants
We returned to the lodge and were surprised to discover that we had been singled out to receive a special personalized candlelight dinner in the gazebo-like structure outside our cottage.  Another delightful romantic touch to celebrate our 50th Wedding Anniversary.

Cape buffalo at a watering hole in Chobe Chilwero
The next day, Wednesday, October 26, would be our last full day in Chobe and we considered for a while using the day to visit Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe instead.  But when push came to shove, we decided that we’d rather spend our last day at the lodge itself and go out on one last morning drive (and maybe a second in the evening as well, depending on how the morning drive went).  And so we did, rising at 5:30 AM to get a really early start and maximize our chances of seeing that elusive leopard.

Greater kudu at Chob Chilwero
And it worked!  Kerby drove us further out than we’d ever been before and spotted the last of the “Big Five” game species we’d hoped to see.  It was a magnificent specimen and, as Kerby put it, a “cheeky” animal, appearing boldly before us, and then swiftly disappearing into the bush.  Our sighting was so impressive that we decided to end our game drives on this high note, foregoing the afternoon drive on this last day and just resting up for the long trip home that awaited us.

Our "cheeky" elusive leopard at last sighted at Chobe Chilwero
We returned to the lodge for lunch, a nap, and packing for our trip back to the States.  Dinner that night was somewhat disappointing but, again, it was at least partially my own fault.  I opted for the impala stew that turned out to be as stringy and chewy as goat.  But it wasn’t as bad as the grilled crocodile!

Sunset on the Chobe River
We were, however, in for a special treat on our last night at Chobe Chilwero.  The lodge had arranged for a talented group of young dancers to entertain us with a number of their traditional dances.  We loved the show.

African dancers at Chobe Chilwero Lodge

I’ll be posting my penultimate comment on our Africa journey tomorrow.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Our African Journey: Days 8-9, Johannesburg, Zimbabwe and Botswana

Saturday, October 22.  We checked out of the River Bend Lodge, were driven to the Port Elizabeth Airport, and were assisted on to our flight to the O.R. Tambo Airport in Jo-burg.  There we were met by another O.E. representative who drove us to the Westcliff Hotel where we’d be staying for just one night.  We were going on to the Chobe Chilwero Lodge in Botswana but we couldn’t fly there directly from Port Elizabeth and had to fly through Jo-burg to get there.  Hence our one night stay in Jo-burg.
View of Johannesburg from our hotel room at the Westcliff Hotel
When we checked into the Westcliff Hotel we were presented with a bottle of champagne to welcome us, even though we were staying for just one night.  The Westcliff is a large fine sprawling hotel with ample amenities and our accommodations were excellent.  But we were somewhat tired after our stay in River Bend and we weren’t especially eager to explore Jo-burg.  So we opted for a light snack at the Polo Bar in the hotel and an early bedtime.
The Polo Bar at the Westcliff Hotel
Sunday, October 23.  We checked out of the hotel early in the morning, were picked up by an O.E. representative in the lobby of the hotel and driven to O.R. Tambo Airport where we were assisted in going through immigration and boarding our flight to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe (it is, unfortunately, necessary to fly through Zimbabwe to get from South Africa to Botswana).  We went through immigration, baggage claim, and customs at the Zimbabwe Airport where we also purchased our double entry visa to that country.  (The principal industry of Zimbabwe would appear to be the sale of visas to tourists: we required one to get into the country from South Africa en route to Botswana even though we weren’t staying in Zimbabwe and we would require another to get back into the country from Botswana en route to South Africa on our return trip home.  By contrast, neither South Africa nor Botswana required visas of any kind.)

Once through Zimbabwe immigration and customs, we were met by two more O.E. representatives who drove us to the border between Zimbabwe and Botswana (where we went through Zimbabwe immigration again on our way out of the country).  They then handed us off to O.E.’s Botswana representative who drove us the rest of the way to the Chobe Chilwero Lodge.

More to come in my next post.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Our African Journey: Days 5-7,River Bend Lodge and Addo Elephant National Park

Wednesday, October 19.  When we disembarked at Port Elizabeth, we were met by the O.E. representative who drove us swiftly to the River Bend Lodge, in time for us to check in, meet the lodge’s staff, and almost immediately go out on our first game drive.  The lodge is located in the Nyathi Section  of the Addo Elephant National Park which is not open to the public, providing us and the lodge’s dozen or so other guests with the private use of 14,000 hectares of land.  Since the lodge maintains just four open vehicles for game drives (each seating no more than eight persons including the guide), and caters to just a small number of guests, that meant that when we were out on a drive in their private section of the park, we often were the only humans there.  (Of course, when we visited other sections of the park, we often did encounter other tourists as well.)  Anyway, as we entered the lodge’s grounds, and even before checking in, let alone embarking on our first game drive, we were treated to the sight of herds of zebras, ostriches and impala in the meadows just off the road.  An auspicious beginning to our stay at River Bend.
Zebras at River Bend
We met the River Bend’s key staff, including Joe Pringle, the lodge’s Senior Guide, who would be our field guide and host for the duration of our stay, and we couldn’t have been more fortunate in having drawn him as our guide.  He was charming, intelligent, knowledgeable and passionate about his profession and we forgive him for having awakened us at 5 or 5:30 AM each day we were at River Bend in order to maximize our chances or early morning game sightings.  After being shown to our lodgings, a beautifully appointed private cottage on a lovely flowery path, we had a quick but excellent lunch in the lodge’s dining room.  I had what the lodge called its “Gourmet Burger,” a hamburger made with kudu meat (slightly drier and somewhat gamier than beef but very tasty), topped with sautéed mushrooms and camembert cheese.  What’s not to like about that?  And shortly after lunch, we joined Joe and two other guests for our first game drive.
On the path to our cottage at River Bend
At the time we were a bit impressed – we saw zebras, kudus, ostriches, giraffes, elephants, baboons and more – but in hindsight, and now being a bit blasé about it all, that first drive wasn’t all that impressive.  Certainly not in comparison to what we would get to see over the remainder of our stay at River Bend and, subsequently, at Chobe Chilwero in Botswana.  But I’ll get to all that later.
Giraffes at River Bend
That first drive lasted from about 4 PM to 7 PM, ending with a choice of tea, coffee, beer, wine or gin and tonics in the bush, after which we returned to the lodge for what turned out to be wonderful dinner.  And then early to bed.  We knew we’d be getting up at 5 AM the next morning and needed our rest.

Thursday, October 20.  We got our wake-up call at 5 AM but not by telephone.  Rather, there was a knock at the door and there was Joe, himself, with a tray of coffee and muffins.  We dressed quickly and were seated in the lodge’s open game drive vehicle at 5:30 AM.  Joe was there too, of course, and so was the couple with whom we’d been on the previous evening’s game drive.  And they were quite excited to tell us that they’d spotted a black rhino from the verandah of their cottage just moments before.

Now a black rhino is something special: it is an endangered species with only about 4,000 left in the world.  Moreover, the rhinoceros is one of the “Big Five” game species that visitors to Africa hope to see (the other four being the elephant, lion, leopard and buffalo).  So our immediate goal was to track down and sight that black rhino - and so we did!  A great start to the day.

A black rhino at River Bend

During the course of the remainder of that morning’s drive, we also saw a pride of lions, innumerable elephants and a herd of buffalo, three of the other four “Big Five” species.  So on our very first morning drive, we saw four of the “Big Five” (not to mention any number of more minor game species).  All but the leopard - but Joe was pretty confident we’d get to see a leopard too, eventually.  Not bad for our first morning drive.
Lions at River Bend
We returned to the lodge in late morning, in time for breakfast and a nap.  Lunch and then another game drive at 4 PM.  More elephants, giraffes, buffalo, et al.  But no leopard.  Drinks and snacks in the bush at the end of the drive.  Back to the lodge and another outstanding dinner.  And early to bed.
An impasse with an elephant at River Bend
Friday, October 21.  Joe let us sleep a half hour later this morning and didn’t awaken us in his inimitable fashion with coffee and muffins until 5:30 AM.  But then we were in the game vehicle at 6 AM and off again.  Lots more animals – but still no leopard.  Uh oh, maybe we wouldn’t get to see a leopard after all.  We’d have just one more chance at that evening’s game drive since we were scheduled to be off to our next destination the following morning.
African buffalo and their symbiotic friends, the egrets
And so back to the lodge for lunch and another afternoon nap before embarking on our last River Bend game drive at 4 PM.  And, sad to say, lots of animals – but still no leopard.  Joe assured us that we’d see one at the Chobe Chilwero Lodge in Botswana (where we’d be going next) but it still looked more and more as if we might come up one species short.

Ostriches guarding a nest at River Bend
When we returned to the lodge around 7 PM and went to our cottage to freshen up before dinner, we were in for a big surprise.  The staff of the lodge had been told that our trip was in celebration of our 50th Wedding Anniversary and they scattered rose petals and tea candles all around our room, including a large number in the shape of a heart on the bed, to create a “romantic” atmosphere.  A bit hokey perhaps, but a delightful gesture nonetheless.
Our surprise 50th Wedding Anniversary bed covered with rose petals at River Bend...
And it didn’t end there.  When we went to the dining room for dinner, we were immediately escorted out to a private table in a separate room set up just for us and waited on in the most elegant fashion by Joe, himself.  A wonderful culmination to our stay at River Bend.
...and our surprise 50th Wedding Anniversary Dinner at River Bend!
More to come tomorrow.   

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Our African Journey: Days 1-5, NY to Cape Town

We're back! Our African journey – a memorable two weeks trip to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana to celebrate our 50th Wedding Anniversary - has finally come to an end. The entire trip was a gift from our son, Adam, and our daughter-in-law, Jen - and what a trip it was, with visits to Johannesburg, Cape Town and Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa and Chobe National Park in Botswana. Thanks, again, Adam and Jen: it was terrific and we really appreciate it!

The trip began when we were picked up at home at 8 AM on Saturday, October 15, and driven to JFK for our trans-Atlantic flight to Johannesburg on South African Airways (SAA) and it made for an auspicious beginning.  The flight both took off and landed on time and one no longer expects much more than that from airline travel.  But this flight actually was even better than we’d anticipated: we’ve flown quite a bit in our lives but never before on SAA and we were pleasantly surprised.  The flight was reminiscent of travel in the 1960s and 1970s before most airlines began nickel and diming travelers by charging them for everything from pillows, blankets and baggage storage to snacks and drinks, but there was none of that here: meals, snacks, blankets, pillows and beverages (even alcoholic ones) were all complimentary.  It was as if we had traveled back in time.  Not that anyone ever would rave about the comfort of a 14 ½ hours flight or the quality of airline food, but this was surely as good as it gets today and, based on our experience on this flight and the several other SAA flights we took in the course of our trip, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend traveling on SAA.

When we landed at O.R. Tambo Airport in Jo-burg at 8:35 AM (South African time) on Sunday, October 16, a full day after we left our home in NY (including the six hours time difference between NY and Jo-burg), we were met by an Orient Express representative who assisted us through immigration, baggage claim and customs and escorted us to our domestic connecting flight (also via SAA) to Cape Town.  (Our entire trip was booked through Orient Express and I must say that they did a first rate job across the board).  Without the O.E. representative’s assistance, I  think we might have missed our connection but, as it turned out, we had time to spare.

Mt. Nelson Hotel in Capetown
A couple of hours later, we landed in Cape Town where we were met by two more O.E. representatives who assisted us with our baggage before handing us off to Jack, who would be our driver-guide in Cape Town for the next two days.  Jack then whisked us off to the Mt. Nelson Hotel, an elegant hotel where we were delighted to learn that we had been given a complimentary upgrade from the superior hotel room that had been booked for us to our own private cottage on the hotel grounds (Honeysuckle Cottage).  That night we dined on springbok in the hotel’s renowned Planet Restaurant (formerly the Cape Restaurant).  We both opted for the four course tasting menu (with accompanying wines).  It was a wonderful meal and a perfect end to our first day in South Africa.

At 7 AM the next morning (Monday, October 17), Jack met us in the lobby of the hotel and then drove us to Walker Bay, two hours away, for a morning of whale watching (with a couple of sharks thrown in for good measure).  We brought along picnic baskets from the hotel to provide us with breakfast along the way and the provisions were so ample that their remains were sufficient for evening snacks as well.  When we got to Walker Bay, we boarded the “Whale Watcher,” a boat that maneuvered to within thirty meters of mother whales and their calves frolicking in the bay offshore.  We were most touched by the sight of some calves so young that they rested on their mothers’ backs while in the sea, having not yet fully learned how to swim on their own.  Nearby we watched as others braver than ourselves submerged in shark cages, the better to view sharks underwater attracted by a combination of chum and seal decoys thrown into the bay; we were content to watch all that from a respectful distance.

Still, a sign painted on the “Whale Watcher” that read “Life – an adventure to be lived, not a problem to be solved” captured our sentiments exactly.

Upon disembarking from the “Whale Watcher,” we were driven by Jack to a delightful lunch at the fine restaurant on the grounds of the Grootbos Private Nature Reserve.  Another excellent meal and enough for one day.  We were driven back to the hotel where we snacked on the remains of our breakfast picnic baskets before crashing for the night.

At 9 AM the next morning (Tuesday, October 18), there was Jack again in the lobby of the hotel ready to take us on a half-day tour of Cape Town, including visits to the Malay Quarter, the African Market, the Jewish Museum, and Table Top Mountain.  Our first minor disappointment: the day was windy and overcast so the view from the peak of Table Top Mountain was not as exhilarating as it might otherwise have been.  But the ride to the top of the mountain in a spinning funicular was fun enough to justify the outing.

Back to the hotel.  Exhausted.  Dined in our room and then to bed.

Wednesday, October 19, 7:40 AM: Jack picked us up at the hotel and drove us to the airport where we were met by another O.E. representative who assisted us in boarding our flight to Port Elizabeth whence we’d be going to River Bend Lodge and visiting Addo Elephant National Park.

More on that in my next post.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Off Broadway: Kithless in Paradise

We saw Kithless in Paradise at The Lion Theatre last Saturday and found it to be a sometimes amusing but not very deep play about how much more important loving and honest relationships can be than are material goods.

“What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”  That’s the biblical injunction but a similar secular version of that idea appears in Greek mythology as well, in the story of King Midas, whose ability to turn everything he touched into gold proved to be a curse rather than a blessing.  Or in everyday terms: “Money can’t buy happiness.”  And it is a similar message that animates Kithless in Paradise by Molly Moroney, now enjoying its world premiere: to wit, there are more important things in life than material goods.

Kithless in Paradise is set in San Francisco in 2009 at the home of Tim and Janice McCall (David Wirth and Liz Forst), who are hosting a dinner party for their house guests, Phil and Polly Barrett (Brit Herring and Tracy Newirth) who are visiting from New York.  Tim, a successful money manager, and Phil, who is now very comfortably retired, are in their fifties and have been best friends since their high school days, even before they were college classmate at Notre Dame.  After graduating from college, Phil became Tim’s first client, engaging him to manage his $20 million portfolio – an act which launched Tim on his successful career.

Also in attendance at the dinner party are Ken Loring (Bob Manus), who Tim and Phil have also known since their high school days, and his wife Sandy (Jill Melanie Wirth).  If anything, Ken appears to be even wealthier than Tim and Phil, residing in a $25 million mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  But Tim and Phil are certainly well enough off themselves, drinking $3,000 bottles of Bordeaux, driving Mercedes Benz cars, and belonging to all the right clubs.

Not that everything is perfect – not by a long shot.  Both Tim and Phil went through a difficult stretch during the early stages of the financial crisis over the prior two years and that did put something of a strain on their relationship, although they and their friendship managed to survive it.  But a much more serious problem, it would seem, is the fact that Sandy is suffering from leukemia and may not have much longer to live.

One might imagine that Sandy’s leukemia would be the equivalent of an 800 pound gorilla in the room but, oddly enough, that doesn’t turn out to be the case at all.  Not only Janice and Polly, but even Sandy, herself, remain more concerned with talk of shopping for expensive shoes and handbags and imbibing outrageously expensive wine than with the state of Sandy’s health.  As for Phil, Tim and Ken, their focus remains firmly on such macho matters as cars, sports, bodybuilding and money.  In sum, the shallowness of the entire group knows no bounds.

Of course, as the dinner party wears on, secrets are disclosed and revelations made, which is just what we’ve come to expect from plays of this sort.  Spousal infidelities and the betrayals of friends come to light but it all develops in a most predictable manner.  Yes, there are revelations and secrets disclosed but there are no real surprises and nothing earth-shattering occurs.

The play is written, directed and acted well enough and it does have its entertaining moments.  But while it succeeds in displaying the shallowness and one-dimensionality of all six characters portrayed and telegraphing its platitudinous message that love, marital fidelity, friendship, health and life itself are more important than material goods, this is not a deep play and it achieves its goals only by lapsing into the very shallowness and one-dimensionality of the characters in the play itself.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Off Broadway: Dublin by Lamplight

We saw Dublin by Lamplight at 59E59 Theaters last Sunday (the tenth anniversary of 9/11) and very much enjoyed it.  It is a wonderful combination of Commedia dell’Arte and Story Theatre, engendering an exceptionally entertaining and creative work of Irish historical fiction.

Jered McLenigan, Sarah Van Auken, and Mike Dees in DUBLIN BY LAMPLIGHT.  Photo by Katie Reing
The year is 1904, the place Dublin and, despite the city’s unspeakable filth and squalor, the air is redolent with revolutionary change.  Thoughts of women’s suffrage are beginning to emerge.  Dreams of Irish independence from Great Britain (or at least home rule) are prompting political (and sometimes terrorist) action.  And in the midst of it all, against a backdrop of poverty and fury, whores, beggars, drunkards and rebels, a small troupe of actors, led by Willy Hayes (superbly played in the best Chaplinesque manner by Jered McLenigan), have their own high hopes of launching the “Irish National Theatre of Ireland.”

That is the backdrop for this most extraordinary of plays, Dublin by Lamplight, having its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters as part of New York’s First Irish 2011 Festival of plays.  This production is a theatrical delight, highly stylized and combining elements of silent movies, burlesque, slapstick, Commedia dell’Arte, and Story Theatre.  Each of the six actors in the cast has a major role to play, but each also plays anywhere from another three to seven minor roles as well – and they all perform absolutely wonderfully across the board.

The play itself is a mix of fact and fiction and the story takes place on an imaginary day in 1904 when Willy Hayes and his ambitious “Irish National Theatre of Ireland” troupe launch their first production, The Wooing of Emer.  It is also the same day that the King of England is arriving in town, creating a perfect opportunity for political and social protests of all sorts.

The star of The Wooing of Emer, the play within a play, is Eva St. John (Megan Bellwoar) who is to play the role of Emer.  But Eva is also a suffragette leader who, chaining herself to a fence as part of her protest and getting herself arrested for her efforts, can’t make it to the theatre in time for the play’s opening.  And so, in time honored fashion, Maggie (Sarah Van Auken), who is only in charge of costumes at the theatre but aspires to be an actress herself, is enlisted to replace Eva at the last moment – and does so to great acclaim.

Willy’s brother Frank (Jared Michael Delaney) is to play the part of Cuchulain, a legendary Irish hero, opposite Eva’s Emer, but he, too, has a real life agenda that conflicts with his theatrical role.  In his case, it is that he is a terrorist bomb-planting rebel which delays his arrival at the theatre as well and which prompts his brother, Willy, to declaim in sadness and despair: “When I said we were to act for Ireland, I meant act for Ireland, not this.  Not kill people.”

The plot turns out to be even more complicated than that.  Maggie is carrying Frank’s child but Jimmy Finnegan (Michael Doherty), the most innocent member of the troupe, is in love with Maggie.  Rounding out the cast is Mike Dees in the role of Martyn Wallace, an over-the-top transvestite member of the wannabe “Irish National Theatre of Ireland.”

This is a production that can be enjoyed and appreciated on many levels – as a delightful phantasmagorical romp, as a metaphorical commentary on life imitating art, or on the very survival of the human spirit in the face of adversity.  Indeed, the day I saw the play marked the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and one might even draw parallels between the play’s message and the indomitable spirit Americans have exhibited since that tragic day a decade ago.  In light of Eva’s arrest and the chaos surrounding the King’s arrival, Martyn proclaims that “We can’t do the play….Eva’s in gaol.  And the topless towers of Ilium caught fire.”

And Willy and Martyn then continue as follows:

Willy: The burning, lofty towers came crashing down.

Martyn: The walls of Troy were breached and tumbled down.

Willy: The battlements that had shored up a wondrous city collapsed.

Martyn: And the clouds, the black clouds of despair…

But it is at that point that Maggie intervenes to complete Martyn’s sentence in a manner he had not intended:

Maggie: …parted and a golden ray of hope shone down, a ladder to the stars…

And as the scene ends, the conversation among the three of them concludes:

Maggie: Rise.  Rise and be men again.  Follow me and place your faith in me, and I will deliver you.

Willy: Her voice rang out with the force of truth.

Martyn: It moved like a solid thing down the corridors.

Willy: It bounced off the floor.

Martyn: The walls.

Willy: The ceiling.

Martyn: It hit the back wall of the theatre.

Willy: It destroyed the back wall of the theatre.

Martyn and Willy: It burned up the whole world.

Martyn: Maggie!

Willy: No, Martyn. Emer!

And the scene ends with Maggie stepping into the breach and assuming the role intended for Eva, proving yet again that the show and, indeed, life itself, must go on, even in the face of the worst adversity.

Friday, August 26, 2011

FringeNYC 2011: Banshee

This is a play that can be appreciated on many levels: as the story of an Irish-American mother reluctant to let go of her grown son; as a man’s psychological odyssey to regain his sanity; and as a spooky, supernatural thriller.

Set in Chelsea, New York in 1981, Banshee by Brian C. Petti, is a well-written and well-performed play that explores the relationships among an overbearing Irish-American mother, Kit Sullivan (Elisabeth Henry); her vulnerable 40 year old son, Jerry (Brian Christopher); Jerry’s devoted brother, Neil (Ron Morehead); and the new woman in Jerry’s life, Cara (Lauren Murphy).   Oh, and we can’t forget the title character, the banshee, a feminine spirit in Irish folklore often perceived as being an omen of death.

The play begins with Jerry having recently returned home from the mental institution in which he had been residing while recovering from a nervous breakdown.  His prognosis is relatively good: his doctors are sufficiently confident that he will be able to make it in the real world that they have been willing to release him; he is effectively medicated; and he can look forward to the support of his brother, Neil, a cop, who has found him a job and is eager to introduce him to Cara, a lovely young single mother who works with him as a police dispatcher.  On the other hand, Jerry’s mental condition is still fragile and he will be returning to live with his widowed mother, Kit, with whom he has lived ever since the death of his father, Jerry Sullivan Sr. years ago.  And that won’t be easy: she is selfish and controlling and reluctant to let go of her boy in order to allow him to develop a life of his own.  Indeed, she may have been one of the factors that contributed to his nervous breakdown in the first place.

All goes well at the outset.  Jerry performs well at his job and he and Cara really hit it off, despite Kit’s overt attempts to sabotage their relationship.  But then Kit has her ominous dream which she is quick to relate to Jerry.  In it, her dead husband (Jerry’s father) returns to tell her just one thing: “Banshee!”  Kit interprets that to mean that Cara is a banshee and that it is Cara’s presence in Jerry’s life that bodes evil and possibly death.

This is a lot for Jerry to handle in his fragile mental state, even with the support of both Neil and Cara and he suffers a relapse, voluntarily checking himself back into the mental institution.  When he leaves the hospital for the second time, it is with a new found strength and with the intention of finally cutting the cord that has bound him to his mother and moving in with Cara in order to embark on a new life of his own.  Not surprisingly, this does not sit well with Kit and there is, recall, still that banshee (whether real or imaginary) to contend with.  The play builds to a dramatic and somewhat enigmatic climax, which I did not find fully satisfying, but let’s not quibble: for a minimalist Fringe production, Banshee is well worth seeing.

FringeNYC 2011: The Three Times She Knocked

Last Wednesday, I saw the Frtinge Festival production of The Three Times She Knocked at Manhattan Theatre Source and found it to be a cleverly constructed tale of sexual obsession with a good plot twist. I thought that the acting was excellent as was the chemistry between the two players: Bob D’Haene and Isabel Richardson.

Isabel Richardson and Bob D'Haene in The Three Times She Knocked. Photo by Josh Jones.
Tara (Isabel Richardson), a recently hired employee, is young, beautiful and newly-married and, from the moment he first laid eyes on her, Eric (Bob D’Haene), her co-worker, has been absolutely smitten.  Indeed, not merely smitten but obsessed and not just with her physical beauty but with her “transcendence.”  His love for her is not of this world but is on an entirely different plane.

Eric felt this way once before about another female co-worker eleven years ago and that didn’t work out well at all.  But he has learned from experience and won’t allow himself to slip into a situation like that again.  And so he does whatever he can to avoid any contact with Tara unless absolutely necessary: when he sees her coming, he turns the other way or ducks into an office or cubicle; if he’s invited to join a group of co-workers for lunch and he learns that she’ll be part of the group, he begs off; if she initiates a conversation with him, he makes every effort to cut it short.

Tara quickly becomes aware that Eric is avoiding her but she doesn’t know why.  Understandably (albeit mistakenly), she assumes not that he is obsessively in love with her but, rather, that he hates her or that she must have done  something to offend him.  And so she confronts him to find out just what is going on.

Not surprisingly, Eric is reluctant to disclose his feelings to her at first but, as she persists, returning time and again to his office (and always knocking three times, whence the title of the play), he explains his actions to her, ultimately going so far as to share his innermost fantasies with her.  That, in turn, triggers a reaction in Tara and an odd but strong sexual tension develops between them, one lacking in physical contact but akin to what might be experienced through sexting or telephone sex.

And that is about all that I can safely tell you about the plot of The Three Times She Knocked without running the risk of ruining the play for you, since there are still some unusual twists to come that you’re better off not knowing about in advance.  But I can tell you this: the chemistry between Richardson and D’Haene is terrific, both of their performances are pitch perfect, and this play is well worth seeing.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

FringeNYC 2011: The Town of No One

The Town of No One by Tariq Hamani, presented by Playsmiths at Teatro LATEA as part of this year’s New York Fringe Festival, has been billed as a “surprising black comedy” but, while it may be “black,” there really is nothing comedic about it.  Rather, it is a dark, existentialist, nihilistic work which provides few laughs.  But if it is not funny, it certainly is thought-provoking  and, on that score alone, it is worth seeing.

The play is set in a somewhat phantasmagorical seaside town which boasts no laws, no rules, and no religious nor marital institutions.  Women procreate but don’t necessarily raise their own children nor even know their names: Mother May (Mary Catherine Wilson), the proprietor of the local pub, has borne eleven children but she never sees and can’t even recall the names of ten of them who she handed off at birth to be raised by Felice (Iriemimen Oniha).  The only one of her children who she still maintains contact with is Charlie (Timothy John McDonough) who publishes and hawks a trashy newspaper and drops into her pub where, at his mother’s insistence, he engages in a game of “Tick Tock,” the town’s favorite sport, with Mag (Helen McTernan) the town gravedigger’s spunky daughter.  (The game or sport of Tick Tock consists of two players alternately punching one another until one is physically unable to continue.  When Mag and Charlie play, it is Mag who prevails.)

Residents of the towns neighboring on “the town of no one” are followers of the “Religiobook” and, consistent with its teaching, they ritually toss the bodies of their deceased out to sea, envisioning their souls arriving at a better place in some afterlife.  That may or may not be so, but so far as their physical bodies go, it certainly isn’t: their bodies end up bloated and decomposing, only to be fished out of the sea by the gravedigger, Deadmen (Michael Selkirk) who, with the reluctant assistance of Mag and occasional help from Bub (Ben Newman), buries them in “the town of no one.”

The “town of no one” is thus something of a libertarian dystopia – or, worse yet, a libertarian nightmare.  With no laws and no rules, everyone does as he wishes and communal needs tend to go unanswered.  When the school house burns down, for example, the ineffectual Mayor Monty (Jim Nugent) is reduced to seeking voluntary contributions from the town’s citizens to rebuild it, but to little avail.

Things begin to change, however, when Harold (James Parenti), a runaway from another town, arrives on the scene.  In rapid succession, he and Mag fall in love, he is (possibly) seduced by Felice, and Mayor Monty resigns his post.  Mag assumes the position of mayor, promulgates new regulations for the town for the first time and, armed with a lead pipe, enforces her will on the town’s citizens.

But is the town any better for that?  Deadmen ultimately discloses to Mag that neither he nor she were born in “the town of no one” but that they immigrated there from some other place after Mag’s mother died in childbirth.  It was her mother’s death that made Deadmen realize that the platitudes he had been fed all his life – that if men engaged in productive labor and if women fulfilled their biological destinies by reproducing, all would be well in this world and that, in any case, an even better world awaits us all after death – were all just so much pap and that he and Mag would be better off in a town that had no such nonsensical illusions.

So what point, exactly, is the playwright, Tariq Hanami, trying to make?  Surely it’s not that an anarchic town with no rules and no laws, depicted here so distastefully, is more to be desired than a world in which laws and rules exist.  But equally surely, it’s not that rules and laws imposed by force and a society suffering from religious mystical delusions is preferable to one that is based on rational considerations and individual freedom.   Perhaps Hanami is simply saying “a plague on both your houses” – on both the libertarian dystopia that inevitably would result from a total lack of rules and laws and the totalitarian monstrosity of a state that would inevitably emerge from the forcible imposition of rules and laws on an unwilling citizenry coupled with that society’s facile acceptance of religious platitudes.  Or maybe Hanami is saying that what is really needed is something in between – a compromise suggestive of the big deal that eluded Barack Obama and John Boehner.  In any case, it’s worth thinking about.