Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A bit of news & information – from a few cultural spheres …

My old blog – – “closed out” in late 2011 … and the new one (this is the initial post!) begins where the earlier blog ended, still emphasizing New York Metro area culture, but with a somewhat circumscribed focus now:  culture “on a shoestring” … and, also, with “seniors” and their pocketbooks, preoccupations, and, perhaps, tastes and tolerances in mind.

Right now, as I write, new (and serious) offerings in the Broadway and off-Broadway theater worlds surface each week.  Many, of course, can be seen in previews, with sometimes, sadly, only short runs to follow.  And I tend to see a fair number of these – some for just, well, nickels on the dollar (see TDF and its offerings, for example, and the TKTS booth in the Times Square area, at the South Street Seaport booth in lower Manhattan, and in downtown Brooklyn).  Tens, if not scores, of plays, of every variety (comedy, tragedy, musical, Shakespearean, experimental, even “novelistic”), on and off-B’way, seem to be available … so there is, alas, something for you and just about everyone, at every price, even as low as $9.00 a ticket (with most offerings priced between $25. and $40. per ticket, if you are a TDF member).  

Indeed, if you are interested in finely honed, extremely well-acted drama – and who among us isn’t – two plays brought out last season and revived right now are, first, “4,000 Miles” (now running through June 17th at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center) which explores the relationship between a grandson and his 91-year-old grandmother upon the young man’s extended visit to her small apartment in Greenwich Village after a cross-country bicycle trip.  Yep, he brings his bicycle along with an excessive amount of familial baggage for grandma to deal with and help sort out. And second, there is Bruce Norris’s “Clybourne Park (now at The Walter Kerr Theatre on B’way), a multi-prize winning – including the 2010 Pulitzer – drama which began its life in runs both off-B’way and in a London production; it is a sensitive and linguistically strident, funny, satirical examination of a batch of interrelated social issues evolving gradually but surely out of class and racial differences, and, of course race-based “turf” (i.e., real estate). Contrasting the content of a first act set in 1959 (dramatized from within a white neighborhood (and white “dominant” perspective) with the content of a second act, set in 2009, exploring many of the same social, racial, and “real estate” issues from the same semi-urban location (much changed physically), but now primarily depicted from within a black “dominant” coign of vantage. The play delivers its various messages and thematic content along a slow, simmering, and subtle dramatic axis, ending up with the various characters – both white and black – articulating the still lingering (festering?) caustic and blatantly racist vocabularies (exhibited in varied  instances, anecdotes, jokes, riffs, and attempts  at real  communication) that have not really changed since the 1950s. Kudos to the fine ensemble cast which makes this play so rich, so subtle, so strong, so memorable.

Equally powerful, and perhaps even more so, is “The Columnist,” still in previews at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (opening on April 25th), featuring a masterful, tour de force  performance by John Lithgow as the volatile, arrogant, powerful, implacable DC-based newspaper columnist, Joseph Alsop. The play, with a superb cast all around, looks at Alsop from a multitude of vantage points – political, sexual, marital – and, of course, through the telescopic lens of his verbal dexterity and from various historical and personal reference points … that is, from just before the inauguration and presidency of Jack Kennedy to post-Vietnam Washington, DC, waist-deep into the power and influence of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, and Alsop’s relationship to that power and to the powerful.  Stewart Alsop, Joseph’s brother, defender, and sometime foil (superbly played by Boyd Gaines), and Alsop’s wife, Susan Mary Alsop (acted with subtlety and strength by Margaret Colin), and the celebrated author-journalist David Halberstam (played by Stephen Kunken) all feature in the verbal gymnastics and dramatic intrigue.  You will not forget this new play by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright, David Auburn; you will not forget the scintillating production/scenic design, nor the finely tuned direction by Daniel Sullivan; you will not soon forget Joseph Alsop (amidst a spectrum of his political battles and personal struggles); and you will surely not forget this magnificent performance by a roaring and imperious John Lithgow. “The Columnist,” I feel certain, will prove the dramatic hit of the Spring theater season on (or off) B’way!

By the way, Joseph Alsop receives quite a few mentions in David Halberstam’s celebrated book about the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the Vietnam War period, The Best and the Brightest (New York:  Random House, 1972), and is characterized thus by Halberstam:  “[Alsop] was an odd man, sophisticated, talented, arrogant; his real talent and perhaps his real love lay not in writing about politics but about archaeology. If his political writing did not last long and did not read well years after, it was not a fault of his intellect, it was something else:  it was that Alsop was a man of Washington and its power, and he wrote to the power play of the day, he wrote not to enlighten but to effect, to move the principal players on [major political] decisions....   And in that sense there was a brilliance, for he had an unerring sense for the raw nerve of each player… (p. 499).

As you are undoubtedly well aware, author readings are scheduled every day all over the city and many of these are free, from appearances at book shops like Barnes and Noble (at numerous locations), to McNally Jackson Books (at 52 Prince St.), and The Strand on lower B’way.  Merely scan Time Out New York online or in the magazine itself for lists of daily (and weekly) details.  One additional notable venue where novelists and short fiction writers read and meet with their readers and other writers in conversation, is The Center for Fiction, at 17 East 47th, between 5th and Madison. The Center – housing a new and used bookstore and some quiet spaces for reading, resting, quiet chatting, and thinking – hosts a variety of worthwhile programs throughout the Fall and Spring each year. I just recently heard Louis Begley reading from his piquant new novel, Schmidt Steps Back, the 3rd volume in his Schmidt series, following both About Schmidt and Schmidt Delivered.  I just finished the first volume (a first edition, now signed by Mr. Begley) and have the 2nd poised on my cocktail table, ready to go.  You might have seen Louis Begley’s Op-Ed piece in The New York Times just a few weeks ago (“Age and Its Awful Discontents,” Sunday Review, March 18th), about aging and, well, its indignities … evoking the plight of the author (Mr. Begley) and his central character, Mr. Albert Schmidt (both now septuagenarians), and us all.

One major upcoming week-long annual author/literature event is PEN World Voices / Festival of International Literature, 30th April through 6th May.  Major and little known authors from all over the world give readings, serve on panels involving wide-ranging thematic topics, and share the contents (and forms/formats, experiences, hopes, memories) of their new work during both brief and longer interview sessions.  PEN festival events occur in venues all over NYC – from NYU to the Goethe Institut, from The Cooper Union to MoMA, from the New School to the Bowery Poetry Club, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Asia Society, the Brooklyn Public Library, Joe’s Pub, and many more!

And, finally, while just about everyone now knows about The Tribeca Film Festival which began today, April 17th, too few around the NY Metro area, I suspect, have heard about or attended the Montclair (NJ) Film Festival, beginning May 1st (through the 6th) with screenings at venues in town and on the campus of Montclair State University. Opening night, which might already be sold out, previews “The Oranges,” a film with Hugh (“Dr. House”) Laurie.  The festival is a small one, but presents broad content, with screenings of comedies, short films, dramatic features, student films, and documentaries.  You can, for example, see  a batch of new feature films, including Kathleen Turner in “The Perfect Family” and Nellie McKay in “Downtown Express.”  Interested in film?  It’s not yet too late to have a look …

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