Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tucson, Phoenix and the Grand Canyon

Whew! We’ve just returned from a whirlwind week-long trip to Arizona where we visited Sue’s cousins, Ed and Nancy (in Tucson) and her sister, Ellen (in Phoenix), with side trips (in no particular order) to the Grand Canyon, Montezuma Castle National Monument, the Sonora Desert, Gates Pass, the Cactus Forest in Saguaro National Park, Sabino Canyon, the Coronado National Forest, and the Phoenix Zoo (to mention just the high points). It was a terrific experience, even if absolutely exhausting!

Ed and Nancy's House in Tucson
For starters, Ed and Nancy are extraordinary hosts and Nancy is not only a wonderful cook but a great tour guide as well. Moreover, their territorial style house on the edge of the Sonora Desert (where we stayed for three days in Tucson) is a veritable museum, boasting outstanding collections of everything from Navaho sand paintings to apothecary jars, from lobster claws to ballet memorabilia, from sea shells to musical instruments, and from rugs and carpets to photos from their extensive travels (to the Galapagos Islands, New Zealand, and most places in between). As a launching pad for our trip, it couldn’t be beat.

But perhaps I’d better start at the beginning.

Since we weren’t able to book a direct flight from New York to Tucson, we did the next best thing: we flew out of La Guardia Airport to Dallas Fort Worth on the morning of Saturday, October 16, connecting in DFW for the second leg of our trip to Tucson. Both segments were uneventful (the best kind of flights to be on!) and both arrived ahead of schedule. An auspicious beginning.

Ed and Sue in Ed's 'Backyard'
Ed met us at the Tucson airport and drove us to his home - the sprawling 2500 square foot “museum” (I mean “house”) described above – and then escorted us in our explorations of his environs all the way down to the “wash” behind his house, while Nancy began preparations for dinner. Sue and I were astonished by the lush foliage surrounding their home; we never imagined cacti came in so many different varieties or in such abundance but if we weren’t totally disabused of that misconception immediately, we surely were by the end of our trip. By the time Ed, Sue and I returned to the house proper, Nancy’s marinated steak was ready for grilling (I guess that Ed has to get some credit for preparing dinner too since it was he who actually grilled the steak). The bottom line: the meal was superb, we were tired and we sacked out early.

Ed and Nancy in Their 'Backyard'
By the time we awoke the next morning (Sunday), Nancy already had prepared tuna fish salad sandwiches (with walnuts and cranberries) for a picnic lunch. By picnicking, she explained, we wouldn’t have to waste time stopping to eat at restaurants, it would be more economical, and it would be more fun. And it worked, enabling us to visit the Sonora Desert, Gates Pass, and the Cactus Forest in Saguaro National Park, stopping for our picnic lunch I forget just where.

Saguaro and Other Cacti
The Cactus Forest is awe-inspiring. As a Northeastern city kid, I always imagined that the deserts of the western United States were sort of like the Sahara with an odd cactus poking up here and there. Boy was I wrong! The saguaro cacti are massive and overwhelming, like a tribe of giant extra-terrestrials, rising as much as 75 feet in the air and living for a century and a half or longer. Encountering them for the first time is quite an experience.

That evening, Nancy went on a chef’s holiday: Instead of preparing dinner herself, she and Ed accompanied us to dinner at Mi Nidito, the renowned Mexican restaurant in Tucson which has played host to such celebrities as former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Julio Iglesias, Bruce Babbit, Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Rich Little, William Shatner, Beau Bridges, Fran Tarkenton, Jimmy Smitts, and now us. The food (and the margeritas) were excellent. I had the “President’s Plate,” consisting of a Bean Tostada, a Birria Taco, a Chile Relleno, a Chicken Enchilada and a Beef Tamale; I figured if it was good enough for the President, it was good enough for me and it was. And for $12.75 it was an exceptional deal. If you get to Tucson, make a bee line for Mi Nidito.

After dinner, Nancy took us on a brief tour of downtown Tucson. And back to their house. And so to bed. A long day culminating in dreams of saguaro cacti.

In the morning (Monday), we discovered that Ed and Nancy had arranged for us to have a brunch of bagels, lox and cream cheese, lest we suffer withdrawal symptoms upon being away from New York for more than two days, I suppose. And we had another full day’s activities scheduled, including a drive to Sabino Canyon and a ride on the tram in the Coronado National Forest. Somewhere along the way, I also was directed to pick up a National Parks Senior Citizen Lifetime Pass. This is an extraordinary deal and one which any senior citizen should be sure to avail himself of if he has any intention at all of ever visiting any national park. The pass costs just ten bucks and is good for a lifetime, not just for the year. And it then gets you into any national park free. And not just you, but everyone else in your car (if admission is by vehicle) or for three more people in your party in addition to yourself (if admission is by individual). A real bargain.
Nancy was up to her old tricks again that night and prepared a great shrimp dinner for us. I was beginning to understand why people retire to Arizona

The next morning (Tuesday) we rose very early to drive to Phoenix to pick up Ellen en route to the Grand Canyon. We brought along another batch of bagels, lox and cream cheese to eat for breakfast in the car. And turkey sandwiches for a picnic lunch somewhere.

Montezuma's Castle
After picking up Ellen, we drove on to Montezuma Castle National Monument. With my National Parks Senior Citizen Lifetime Pass, entry to the monument cost the five of us a total of just $5 instead of $25. So I already was realizing a profit on my $10 investment and we hadn’t even gotten to the Grand Canyon yet.

When we finally arrived at the Canyon in the early evening, we checked in to the Maswik Lodge and then briefly hiked a short distance along the South Rim. (Incidentally, entry to the Canyon, normally $25 per vehicle, was free with my National Parks Senior Citizen Lifetime Pass; the profits on my $10 investment were increasing.) When night descended, we returned to the lodge for an evening snack from the cafeteria in the lodge. It had been a long day and we all turned in.

View of the Canyon From the South Rim
We arose early again on the following morning (Wednesday), breakfasted in our rooms on coffee and banana bread (which Nancy had baked before we left Tucson), then boarded the free shuttle bus which circled a segment of the South Rim of the Canyon. Nancy, Ed and Ellen had seen the Canyon before but for Sue and me, it was our first time – and we were truly overwhelmed. We’d seen photographs of the Canyon, of course, and we’d heard descriptions of it from others who had seen it first hand but unless you’ve seen it yourself, you simply cannot imagine just how awe-inspiring it is It is truly one of the modern wonders of the world.

Ellen Alan and Sue at the Canyon
Hating to leave but with a trip of several hours ahead of us before we would arrive in Phoenix, we reluctantly checked out of the lodge in the late morning, lunched at the lodge cafeteria, and returned to our car for the drive back. On the way, we traveled through Sedona and were duly impressed by the red rock geological formations of the area. Once in Phoenix, we dropped off Ellen at her home and dined out with Ed and Nancy at the Thai Café on Chandler Boulevard. After dinner, we checked into the Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham in Chandler/Phoenix while Nancy and Ed drove back to Tucson. Our time with Nancy and Ed had drawn to a close and they had provided us with a number of truly memorable experiences. Thanks, guys, we really appreciated everything you did for us.

Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham in Chandler/Phoenix
 Hawthorn Suites by Wyndham in Chandler/Phoenix provided us with more than satisfactory accommodations for the next three days. Our suite included a bedroom, living area and kitchen/dining area, all of which were clean roomy, well appointed, and comfortable. The staff was friendly and helpful; it was too cool to swim but we sat out at the pool and found it very pleasant; free fruit and coffee were provided in the lobby at all times; full complimentary buffet breakfast were provided daily and included everything from juice, fruit, cereal and yogurt to bacon, sausage, eggs, waffles and pancakes; and both the business center and fitness center, while small, were more than sufficient for our needs. And the price was right. All in all, I’d recommend staying there and I’d certainly stay there again myself.

We spent the next three days (Thursday-Saturday) in Phoenix with Ellen and let her choose what we would do. She opted to see two movies, “The Social Network” (which was excellent) and “Red” (which was a well made and fun movie of a genre which is not particularly to Sue’s or my taste) at Harkins Theatres in the Chandler Fashion Center and to visit the Phoenix Zoo (which we very much enjoyed). We snacked at the zoo and ate two meals at restaurants in the Chandler Fashion Center: Kona Grill (which was excellent) and BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse (which we also enjoyed). 

We checked out of our hotel early Sunday morning and flew home from Phoenix on a direct flight to JFK, again being lucky enough to arrive early. Our trip to Arizona had come to a close and we had had a grand time.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Off Off Broadway: Look Back in Anger

Last night, I attended The Seeing Place's opening night performance of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, a play which I generally enjoy.  Unfortunately, this company's non-traditional ensemble approach to this play just didn’t work for me.

Brandon Walker, Artistic Director of The Seeing Place Theater and the lead actor in this production, merits respect as a man of strong convictions who is not merely willing but eager to defend his unorthodox approach to the theatrical process in the face of overwhelmingly contrary conventional theatrical wisdom. Thus, in a program note, he states that:

“It is unfortunate that theater history calls this show a star vehicle for Jimmy (and maybe Alison). I don’t care how good Kenneth Haigh or Richard Burton or Mary Ure may have been. As far as I’m concerned, this story has never been told from a group perspective. That is what we have set out to do. There’s no reason why this isn’t also Cliff’s play or Helena’s play – even the Colonel has one very major scene.”

Digging in his heels even deeper, Walker describes the play as “a forgotten relic, which is often dismissed because the protagonist is long-winded or because you can tell John Osborne wrote it in 14 days. It’s not the kind of polished play we’re used to seeing.”

And in a separate press release, describing how The Seeing Place Theater’s work differs from that of other theater groups, he writes:

“Some call us crazy. We spend a good deal of our rehearsal processes not doing the play. We remove the text completely at the beginning....We improvise our way through the situations of a play until we are telling the same story as the playwright...But once our story begins to have the same shape as the playwright had intended, we start adding the lines. It isn’t until the final week or two that our productions begin to take the shape that the audience will see.”

Well, that all sounds very principled, courageous and non-conformist and I suppose it is but I am largely in disagreement with Walker’s philosophy of theater and unfortunately, much of what has been attempted in this specific just doesn’t work (or at least it didn’t work for me.)

Jimmy Porter (Brandon Walker) is a passionate, over-educated, under-employed, working-class, angry young man in a dead-end job, married to Alison Porter (Anna Marie Sell) an upper-middle-class passive woman who shares none of his anger or enthusiasms. Jimmy’s good friend, Cliff Lewis (Adam Reich), who is inordinately fond of Alison, shares their quarters. Alison’s childhood friend, Helena Charles (Adrian Wyatt) visits for an extended stay. When Alison discloses to her that she is pregnant, Helena encourages Alison’s father Colonel Redfern (Rick Delaney) to extricate Alison from her relationship with Jimmy and Helena becomes involved with Jimmy herself.

This play can be appreciated on several levels. As an angry polemic against the class system. As a precursor to the sexual revolution. As a gritty rejoinder to the typical polished drawing room comedies that proliferate on stage. As a veiled reference to the homo-erotic bonding between male friends. And, notwithstanding Walker’s misgivings, as a “star vehicle” for outstanding actors.

Indeed, I think that Walker is wrong and theatrical history is correct in calling this show a star vehicle for Jimmy and Alison and I believe that the reason that this story has never been told from a group perspective before is because it does not lend itself to that kind of an ensemble approach. To be sure, Cliff, Helena and the Colonel all play important supporting roles but that is just what they are: supporting roles. This is not Cliff’s play nor Helena’s play nor the Colonel’s (notwithstanding his one major scene) and we shouldn’t forget it. This play belongs to Jimmy and Alison.

Moreover, I surely wouldn’t call this play “a forgotten relic, which is often dismissed because the protagonist is long-winded or because you can tell John Osborne wrote it in 14 days.” It was, after all, nominated for three Tony Awards including Best Play; it was made into a major motion picture starring Richard Burton, Claire Bloom and Mary Ure; it was extolled by Kenneth Tynan as "a minor miracle” which displayed all the “qualities one had despaired of ever seeing on the stage” and by Alan Sillitoe who wrote that Osborne "didn't contribute to British theatre, he set off a landmine and blew most of it up"; it was revived in an ambitious off off Broadway production by Clout in the Mug Productions only six months ago; and, call me naïve, but if I were seeing it for the first time, I should never have imagined that Osborne had written it in just two weeks.

Within the context of what The Seeing Place Theater has attempted, an ensemble production of Osborne’s play, all of the actors, including Walker, perform their roles competently, so it is not they who should be faulted for failing to deliver soaring performances. But if theater history is correct in seeing this show as a "star vehicle" for Jimmy and Alison (as I think it is), then Walker’s performance, in particular, falls far short of what one might have hoped to see.

Additionally, I guess you’d have to include me among those who do think it “crazy” for a theater company to spend much of the rehearsal process not doing the play, removing the text completely at the beginning, improvising its way through the situations of a play until it’s telling the same story as the playwright, and only then adding the lines, so that it isn’t until the final week or two that a production takes the shape that the audience will see. I imagine that it is at least possible that such an approach could work for some plays, but I don’t think it can work for plays for which words and language are as important as they are for Look Back in Anger.

And, unfortunately, the risks inherent in that approach struck with a vengeance in this production (albeit through no fault of the company’s own). The actor originally slated to play the role of Helena became unavailable just days before the play was scheduled to open, necessitating a last minute replacement. This was accomplished: Adrian Wyatt stepped in to play the role but with insufficient time to learn her lines, she was forced to refer to the book she held throughout the opening performance. Obviously, this would be a problem for any actor coming in to assume a role at the last moment in any play, but how much more difficult must it be for that actor to perform in a production which, by design, relied on the organic evolution of an ensemble team to extract the meaning of the play – rather than a direct understanding of what the playwright had written – which, of course, is just the situation which obtained here. Wyatt never had the opportunity to evolve her role in concert with the other members of the company. Under the circumstances, she cannot be blamed for that and probably deserves praise for the job she did but, all told, it might have been more prudent to postpone the opening night.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

An Aside: A Life in the Theatre

Having not yet seen the Broadway revival of A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet (one of my favorite playwrights), I eagerly awaited reviews of the play by Ben Brantley in today’s NY Times and Terry Teachout in today’s Wall Street Journal. But who ya gonna believe?

Here’s an excerpt from Brantley’s review of this production: ”A long running sentimental hit at the Theatre de Lys in Greenwich Village a quarter century ago, it was surely never meant to bear the weight of Broadway. Yet all shows it seems come to Broadway these days, regardless of their appropriateness to that loud and unforgiving neighborhood, if they have starry names attached.”

Whereas this is what Teachout says: “I can’t think why it took so long for A Life in the Theatre to get to Broadway. It’s a natural, a two character comedy with a wrenchingly serious coda and a plum part for a first-class actor capable of convincingly portraying a tired old ham.”

Did they see the same show? De gustibus, I guess….

Monday, October 4, 2010

Broadway: Mrs. Warren's Profession

We saw the Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Mrs. Warren's Profession on Saturday and just loved it.  Both Cherry Jones and Sally Hawkins were truly outstanding.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession, one of George Bernhard Shaw’s best and most controversial plays, centers on the relationship between Mrs. Kitty Warren (Cherry Jones), a high-class prostitute and madam, and her daughter Vivie (Sally Hawkins), who is shocked to learn that her mother has been engaged in the world’s oldest profession – and that her own Cambridge education and upper-class life style has been financed by the fruits of those “immoral” activities. Mrs. Warren initially placates her daughter by explaining that it was her own impoverished childhood and lack of any other real opportunities which led her into “the life” and the two women temporarily reconcile – until Vivie learns that her mother is still engaged in her highly profitable business, at which time she no longer accepts her mother’s explanation of early poverty as an adequate rationalization for her behavior.

Shaw claimed to have written the play in 1893 "to draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together." In doing so, he ran afoul of the Lord Chamberlain, Britain’s official theatre censor, who banned the play in England for a decade before it was finally allowed to be produced in a members-only club in London. In actuality, the play may not have been banned as much for its portrayal of prostitution as for its scarcely veiled attack on society’s religious hypocrisy, conventional sexual mores, and exploitative capitalist economic system, all of which, in Shaw’s opinion, were complicit in permitting (if not, indeed, actively encouraging) the institution of prostitution.

All of Shaw’s plays, including Mrs. Warren’s Profession, are so well written, their plot structures so intriguing, and their characters so well developed, that one might think that even when they are not perfectly rendered on stage, they probably are still worth seeing. But that is not necessarily the case: the Compassion Theater Company’s recent ambitious Off Off Broadway production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, for example, was so badly miscast and misdirected, and the lighting and set design so badly flawed, that the production was ultimately disappointing, notwithstanding Shaw’s genius (see my review of that production on July 19, 2010).

No such criticism can be lodged against this production by the Roundabout Theatre Company, however. On the contrary, the acting is so superb, the direction so precise, the casting so on point, and the set design so stylish and stylized that the play is a total triumph.

Kitty Warren’s character is so nuanced and multi-layered that a takes a truly accomplished actor to get it right, but Cherry Jones is more than up to the task. Both in word and manner, she manages to communicate the upper-class veneer her character has acquired as a high priced prostitute while retaining her lower-class origins, her need for control over her own life and her desire to extend that control to her daughter, as well as her love of money and what it will buy, while still evidencing the deepest love and concern for her daughter’s welfare.

Sally Hawkins makes her Broadway debut in this play as Kitty Warren’s daughter Vivie - and what a debut it is! Playing opposite Cherry Jones, Hawkins conveys a strength of purpose as Vivie that is more than a match for her mother’s steel will. Without ever saying so in so many words, Hawkins manages to get across the message that her character Vivie, a “New Age” woman of a century ago, in the very earliest stages of the feminist movement, might well have followed in her mother’s footsteps, had she lived a generation earlier and in her mother’s original economic circumstances. And Jones similarly succeeds in communicating (without ever saying so) that Kitty might well have turned her business acumen to a more socially acceptable profession than prostitution, had she grown up in her daughter’s time and with her daughter’s social and financial advantages.

The other characters in the play also do splendidly in their respective roles. Edward Hibbert portrays the part of Mr. Praed, one of Kitty Warren’s old friends (and perhaps one of her one time lovers or clients as well) with just the right degree of reserve and understatement. Mark Harelik beautifully plays the part of Sir George Crofts, Kitty’s business partner and assuredly one of her early lovers/clients, who is desirous now of extending his sway to Vivie, with the cool, dispassionate calculation that Shaw finds so despicable. Michael Siberry does an excellent job in the role of Reverend Sam Gardner, another of Kitty’s one-time lovers and just the sort of weak, class conscious, hypocritical churchman for whom Shaw exhibits such contempt. And Adam Driver plays the role of Frank Gardner, Reverend Sam Gardner’s ne’er-do-well son, with just the right touch of self-centered entitlement as to provide the perfect foil for Shaw to express his antipathy to male dominated class stratified society.

The many inter-related themes in this play include inter-generational strife, conventional social mores, the capitalist economic system, class stratification, marital relationships, patriarchy, prostitution, possible incest and, not least of all, early examples of feminism and the half dozen accomplished actors in the play deal with all of them brilliantly and play off one another as consummate professionals. Doug Hughes also deserves considerable credit for his pitch perfect direction and the exceptionally handsome sets designed by Scott Pask further enrich this theatre going experience.