Oh, Mallory, I Wish There’d Been More Time!

There is something oddly prophetic in this photo, and it captures so much of who she was.

A jarring message found me in Asia the other day. Mallory Diedrich, still months shy of her 48th birthday, had died of a heart attack. Shock and dismay soon gave way to deep sadness.  All the promises we made to make up for lost time now just spittle in the wind.

I first met Mallory Diedrich when she was fresh out of college, student teaching at North Haven High, where I taught English and Drama. She was young, excited, and delighted to jump in and help out with our production work. I was grateful, but I hardly got to know her. We were both busy – me with my assorted lives and she with hers. But I was able to discern three essential insights.

  1. Mallory loved theater and horses in interchangeable order. (This was pre-Matt, who added a third love that took first place always. But that came later.)
  2. Mallory was a seasoned stage manager, the kind high school theater directors rarely get to work with.
  3. Mallory was enormously generous with her time and her resources.

Unaware how much I would come to depend on them, I stored the tidbits in a corner of my brain.

Some years later, at a time when my life was falling apart in all kinds of ways, Mallory called me to tell me there was a job for a director at a youth theater in the Valley. She had signed on to stage manage and had recommended the board hire me as director. I needed that job terribly. Thanks to Mallory, I got it.

At the time, for a number of reasons, I was a mess. As a result, the theater production I was hired to direct was also a mess. I should have self-destructed and would have. Were it not for Mallory.

As SM, Mall covered for me in forty different ways. Maybe a hundred. She kept me from being fired. She smoothed over some of the worst blunders. There were too many ways she fixed things to enumerate. Suffice it to say that , thanks to Mallory, the kids had a positive experience. Then, to round off her sainthood, Mallory saved my life.

Bagelfish and I found a home here, thanks to Mallory and Matthew.

In the midst of other chaos erupting around me, my thirty-three-year marriage fell apart. I had not expected that to happen. I became a certifiable train wreck. With no money, no place to go, and I had to leave. Mallory and her husband Matt had just bought a compound on Townsend Avenue, and it needed some work before they could rent out the units. Mallory offered me a home, told me not to worry about paying her until I could figure it all out. Not only did I move in, but my Bagel Fish Productions partner and his wife got a good deal on another unit, and Mallory and Matt adopted our company.

The rest of The Compound

For two years, then, I lived on Townsend Avenue. Bagel Fish hosted Nosferatu screenings and offered screenwriting and acting classes, made a couple of short films in the house where I was living. We even commandeered Mall and Matt’s dog Natalie and their house for a mockumentary we made about a woman who ran a pet yoga center. Mallory and Matt believed so entirely in our work that they kept our rent ridiculously low and accepted a trade of work in lieu of any real money. When I left the compound, I felt like I was leaving a support system, one I knew I would never find anywhere else. That was fourteen years ago.

Mallory and I were only minimally in touch in recent years. Of course, I saw her at the sad funeral for Mallory and Matthew’s firstborn Adam. But I have never met Jace. We chatted on Facebook, exchanged notes every once in a while. She and I both raved about the joy of sharing the Stepping Stones Children’s Museum with little ‘n’s and promised we’d meet there – she with Jace and I with my granddaughters – but all three of the children grew out of the place, and still we had not met. Just a few weeks ago, I received another poke on FB and a note from her. “Are we ever going to do this?” She asked.

Apparently not. For which I am deeply sorry.

I am also sorry I didn’t know Mallory better. She was a deeply good woman, who was always willing to share. Her love was abundant, and we all knew that by the gifts she so easily dispensed to her family and friends.

Jace has lost the best mom he could have had, and Matthew has lost his great true love. Both of them will go on, but neither will ever be whole in the same way again. My great hope is that Matthew talks about Mallory a lot. That all their friends and family members share with Jace what a treasure she was. That he grows up knowing that she was deeply treasured, greatly loved by people he will likely never know. He should be proud that Mallory Diedrich chose to be his mother.

Let her live in all our hearts and stories.

 

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North Haven, CT, 1987

In 1987, after thirteen years in Phoenix, AZ, I was released from my exile. I returned home to the greener, softer Northeast in a gentle summer. It rained a lot, and most days were unseasonably cool. On my birthday, in the first week of October, we had snow flurries. I was home at last.

It was a relief to be out of the brutal heat and vigilante mentality of the desert southwest. Gun-toting drivers routinely shot at one another, gossip-mongering moms unabashedly encouraged their children to ostracize “others,” and students in the ghetto of downtown Phoenix were deprived of equal education by the closure of neighborhood schools. Moving to Connecticut felt like ascending to heaven that first year. I expected to find safety. Refuge.

On a glorious bright blue Sunday morning in early Fall, my husband and I decided to take a walk to a restaurant not far from the center of our new hometown. The abundant leafy greenery had already begun to spin itself into gold and orange. The sky was the color of Delft, and a gentle breeze teased the edges of the exiting “Indian Summer” heatwave. We were in high spirits, talking about how nice it was to be cool in October. I regaled my husband with praise for having moved us. I actually said, “It’s such a relief to known that I am back in the land of diversity.” Phoenix had been far too awash in Aryan complexion.

Just then we hear the distant sound voices chanting. They were coming from the north. The words of the chant were indiscernible. But the sound was something like a nail gun rhythmically shooting nails into a wood post. They were accompanied by the sound of marching boots, coming ever closer. Then came the words. Words I that became more distinct as the sound approached, punctuated by the perseverating boots.

“Blood and Soil,” they shouted. “This land is ours. Niggers and Jews go home.”

Then the voices stilled. Nothing audible but the clomping of the boots. Stamping out a message as clearly articulated as the hateful slogans.

I froze. My recurring nightmare played in my head. Nazis have discovered where my mother ran to escape them. They have come to America to carry us back to the gas chambers.

The stomping feet grew louder. I could see a cloud arise as the boots kicked dust into the air. Then the cloud was pierced by a flock of disembodied white cones bobbing into town. Soon after by a flow of white-robed bodies. All moving in rhythm to the marching boots. When they were close enough for me to see the individual participants, I realized with horror that each of them had raised the mask up, so their faces were exposed. Expressionless faces. The chantrecommenced. Staring hatefully like the mesmerized mob seeking blood from the Frankenstein monster.

“Blood and Soil. This land is ours. Niggers and Jews go home.”

They looked neither right nor left. The were as a single eye, focused on a goal or a sign only they could see. They squinted with resolute seriousness.

“Blood and Soil. This land is ours. Niggers and Jews go home.”

“The kids,” I said to my husband. “We need to get home to the kids.”

“There are only a few,” he pointed out. “And they don’t seem to be headed toward the house.”

He was right. There were no more than twenty or so bodies. But they moved with the precision and the deliberateness of a single predator. And their presence, exaggerated by the metal on metal combined sound of the voices and the boots, dwarfed reality.

As a single entity, they turned into the parking lot of a strip mall. A strip mall owned by a Jewish owner, where rents were purported to be high. They chanted louder, but now they had turned their backs to us.

My husband touched my arm. “We should go,” he said.

I tried to move. But my body trembled so I had no strength in my legs. I sat on the ground and sobbed.

 

 

 

Trumped

Until I met James, I was comfortably ensconced in my bubble. A New Yorker, surrounded by like-minded denialists, I was comfortable in my belief that Trump supporters were no more than white walkers. Mythological beasts I must never acknowledge. Thanks goodness for James. I now know they really exist. I can face the demons down.

I met James online. Even though I know better – I am happily resigned to being single – I accepted an invitation for three days of free dating from an “elite” site. The site promised a higher caliber of prospects, no losers. What that meant, I came to understand, was that the median incomes were above 100K per year. How I got an invitation I’ll never know. If income is the scale by which my worth is measured, I have none.

But James found my profile and thought I was kinda cute. He said he liked my sense of humor. That should have tipped me off. My profile page was dead serious.

“I’m looking for a smart woman to share my life with,” he wrote. “And my experiences with online dating have been disastrous. But you seem different to me.”

Of course, I was hooked. Call me different, and I’ll follow you anywhere.

I have to admit that from his opening salvos, I could see the red flags bursting in air. “I like a woman who knows how to dress,” he bragged. I assured him that that was not I. He thought I was joking. I wasn’t.

But I liked that he was Irish. My undergraduate thesis was all about James Joyce, and I let my preconceived notions prevail. I expected to be refreshed by a wry sense of irony. Nope. No irony. But plenty of Rye. Yup. An in-tact stereotype. The man is a drinker. Big time. I could smell it over the telephone.

We spoke several times in the first two weeks. Despite the obvious obstacles – he lives in New Hampshire, I in NYC; he hates cities, and I dread NH – we dived in. He reached out to me just as I was preparing to spend a month with family in Thailand, and he had lived in Thailand for thirteen years with his second wife, now deceased. What couple could have more in common?

On the telephone, James spoke of many things. Things that he does. Things that he knows. I would have chimed in, but my contributions to the conversation were met with grunts or groans and unh-hunhs. I got it. I needed to wrap it up. I did. And I kept on listening. It felt quite natural. The men I have chosen to have relationships with have traditionally dismissed me this way. I even ignored the fact that he stopped me in mid-sentence with, “I don’t know anything about that, and it has no relevance to my life.” When I disclosed that I am vegan, he was silent for almost a second. Then he said,”I might learn how to grill vegetables. But green is not a color I like to ingest.”

Like most septuagenarian men I’ve encountered, James was worried he might come across as old. He made it a point of recounting his farming exploits. He’d farrowed the pig. Split wood at a faster clip than his 40-year-old neighbor. “And I’ve got the blood pressure of an 18-year-old. Honestly. Whenever I have it taken, the nurse tells me she has to do it again. It’s too good to be true.” He also said often that he has a stellar memory. It was on his monologue loop.

Then he forgot everything I told him. But drinkers do forget. And it was clear when he paused seven or eight times in a half-hour conversation to “top off the whiskey,” that drinking was a sport he had perfected. He was a far better drinker than any man half his age.

Clearly, I have serious self-esteem issues. I still did not shut this down. When he told me he had had little exposure to “coloreds,” I almost did. But then he qualified his statement. He couldn’t say he was prejudiced, but he couldn’t trust ‘em neither. “Did you vote for Trump?” I asked warily.

He was sly. He knew this was a deal breaker. “No,” he lied. “I don’t dislike him, but I didn’t vote for him.”

Actually, it was more than self-esteem. I was in a fantasy. A fantasy where this man with plenty of money offered to be my partner, to help me pay my bills and allow me to give up my day jobs, to take some sort of retirement. I guess I was gold digging. What else could I have been hanging on for? It was clear I was not going to like this guy.

By the end of the second week of communication, we decided we needed to meet. We chose New Haven, a city I know well, one that’s not difficult for him to reach. He took two rooms – see, I might like him after all! – in a quasi-swank hotel downtown, and he made reservations for a posh dinner overlooking the Green. That afternoon, we met up with some old friends of mine. We hardly spoke to one another. He was huddled in a corner with my friends’ cousin, an IT guy who’s had some bad luck.

When they left us, the first thing James said was, “That guy is all right. He should have learned some kind of a trade though. It’s no good his wife has to take care of them. Only thing I don’t get is they’re Jewish, right? Why doesn’t he just take his money and buy himself a business?”

Looking out on Yale at dinner, he spouted, “You know this place is run by Communists and Jews, right? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t care. But they own an awful lot of this country. And control it.”

With his next breath, he told me that if I committed to him, he would buy me a car. “Just come up, and you can choose whatever model you want. That way you can come and go at your own whim. I’ve got a room where you can write. Maybe we can work out a way that you can do more writing and less teaching.”

How could I end it now?

I was grateful to the drinking. No blue pill. No expectations. Simple cuddling, which he demanded rather than encouraged. I was grateful for the simplicity of it and went to my own room, where I slept soundly in a delightfully comfortable bed.

Over breakfast, he admitted his lie. It began as a paean to Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. I had asked him who his heroes were.

“The three men I admire most,” he asserted, “Are Warren Buffet, that guy from Microsoft, and Donald Trump. Best president in decades.”

I gulped. “Funny. Buffet and Gates both abhor Trump,” I stammered.

“That’s a lie,” he said. “Fake news. Some moron wrote that.”

I wanted to stop him. But I couldn’t. Suddenly I saw the light. These people do not simply haunt the internet netherworld. They are flesh and blood.

He went on to explain why welfare was wrong, how money is a sign of competency and intelligence. “What do you think of the Gates Foundation?” I asked him.

“They do Microsoft research,” he replied.

“They fund startups and health care and . . . “

“There you go spouting fake news again.”

“No,” I shook my head. “I read primary sources too. I’ve actually read stuff published by the Gates –“

“He has a pack of propagandists working for him. They don’t have a clue who he is. He’s like me. A tradesman who’s made a lot of money. He dropped out of Harvard because he’s too smart for them.”

The fallacies had a personal resonance with James. He never dreamed of Harvard. Wanted nothing to do with college at all. His father, a second generation American, had established a successful crane business in New Hampshire. Dad wanted James to go to college, but James had other ideas. He joined the Navy to avoid the draft and Viet Nam, served two years, became a master electrician, then came home, where daddy gave him an ultimatum. No education, no inheritance. He went to a small local college and majored in pre-engineering. He graduated. Daddy died and left him the crane business, which James successfully sold to a large corporation for millions of dollars. He is not a self-made man. He did do well at his electrician’s trade. He still does some of that to prove he’s not old. But the money he has invested in things like Microsoft and Berkshire Hathaway came from the sale of Daddy’s business.

“I pulled myself up by my boot straps,” he told me. “I understand people like Bill Gates and Donald Trump.”

I already saw that I was enabling him. But he promised me a springtime trip to Iceland. How many 70-year-olds get a chance to entertain the thought of a sugar daddy? I could not let go. Not yet.

He called me every day. Proffered every kind of carrot imaginable. The best was a room of my own with a view of the White Mountains, where I could write. No more schlepping to the Bronx to teach Freshman Comp. No more summerschool writing classes. Pure soporific.

One day, out of the blue, he sent me a joke email. A tasteless anecdote about a divorcee who squeezes her husband’s balls for money. I wrote him telling him that as the recipient of a very raw divorce deal, I took umbrage at the joke. He never replied. I even let that slide. A room of my own!

Our next meeting was in Boston. He met me outside the hotel, and by the time I got to the room, I knew I was done. Almost. He was muttering a mile a minute already as he helped me with my suitcase.

“This is some cheap suitcase you got here. You could have bought something with revolving wheels, something I could drag more easily.”

“It was a gift from my son,” I said.

“No wonder. Didn’t you tell me he was Jewish?”

“What?”

“Your son. Remember? You said you celebrate their Sabbath with his family. I told you not to bring them to New Hampshire on Friday night because I can’t cook Kosher. And –“

“It’s my Sabbath,” I said softly. “And none of us is kosher.”

We had lunch in a restaurant he chose without consulting me. A less trafficked Little Italy establishment with no wait. They had nothing for a vegan. I didn’t even mention it, and he didn’t notice. He ordered veal parm. I had a lovely plate of lettuce. Romaine. He offered me a bite of the dead calf on his plate and asked me if I ‘d like a gelato. I said I would prefer an ice. He took me to a gelato place with no ices. “You should try this one,” he said, and bought two of what he was having. Before dinner he hovered as I checked my email. “Why are you getting alerts form youtube about John Oliver and Stephen Colbert? They’re morons.”

“Well, that’s interesting,” I answered. “I guess I’m a moron too. Because they think like I do.”

At dinner he got angry at me for ordering broccoli rabe, the only thing on the menu not meat or cheese. His ire was stoked by the fact that I asked them to cook it without the usual sausage. “Do you have to be so picky? You could just take the meat out and give it to me.”

Over dinner, his full Trump colors emerged.

“When you go to Thailand, you’ll fly first class, right?”

“Hell no,” I scoffed. “I’ll be in economy.”

“I would never stoop to flying economy. Ever. I worked hard. I deserve to fly first class, and that is all I will fly.”

“Good for you,” I said enthusiastically. “You should.”

“I know,” he said. “If you had worked hard, perhaps you could afford to travel first class as well. But a teacher, well, you were doomed when you chose that one. Hardly any work and no money.” I shoved a giant forkful of the rabe into my mouth.

Still, I couldn’t pull myself away. The next day he had booked us a whale watch, at my request. It was prepaid. No matter how I remember James, I will always be grateful for that whale watch. What a spectacle. We saw eight humpback whales rolling, lolling, cavorting in the wild. I was enchanted. He was disgusted by the numbers of passengers spewing their guts into garbage bins or over the side. The sea was rough. I loved every minute of it. Then over our last meal together, he inflicted the coup de grace.

“What did you do this morning when you went out so early?” He asked with an air of near honest interest.

“I was in the lobby.”

“Doing what?”

“Talking to the receptionist.”

“You shouldn’t mix with underlings. It gives them the impression they are as good as we are.”

“I was also reading the Times.”

“The New York Times?”

“Yes.”

He turned beet red.

“You read that junk? It’s poison. I once heard the President” – here he snapped to attention – “speak, then I read about it in the Times. The exact speech, they completely turned around. Lies all lies. I just heard him, and what they said he said was never said. Horse dump. Morons.”

I decided to turn silence into my own currency. He didn’t care. I had already ceased to matter to him. He rattled on until he took me to the bus station. There, he told me he was going to go explore the area and find himself a great pub. He could not wait to get away. He gave me a peck on the cheek, pivoted, and walked away.

He has not contacted me since. I wrote to him and said I thought it was silly for us not to say good bye. He likes to read wordy, meaningless novels, so I wrote him in a style I thought he might appreciate.

“Ours was an uncomplicated short story” I wrote. “It would be unsatisfactory to leave off before writing the resolution. That our friendship failed somehow (our core values just don’t jibe in any way) is no cause for resentment. During our time, we laughed, we were comforted by one another’s presence, and we envisioned a future. That that future was impossible for us is neither’s fault, and we have nothing to regret.”

He did not reply. I am fine with that. I got way more out of this encounter than I hoped. It was a great learning experience. For the first time since the upset of 11/9, I understand how The Carrot got elected. I can see now how we, who would never have wished it, helped make it so.

Julius, O Julius, Wherefore Art Thou Julius?

Shakespeare in the Park is irresistible because. . . Central Park (photo by Joan Marcus).

The main problem with the Public Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, now playing at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, is that its frame is warped. Director Oskar Eustis has set the tale first in New York City then in Washington, D.C., in the time of our current great distress. He has dressed his Julius Caesar as a lean and hungry Trump, who struts and frets his overlong hour upon the stage as a great buffoon. This Caesar plunges stupidly into the senators’ trap, dying ignominiously in a moment closer to commedia dell’arte than tragic drama. His death is a relief to us all. The mayhem that ensues seems unmotivated.

It’s a silly notion from the get-go likening the Carrot-in-Chief to the second noblest Roman of them all. It is akin to Dan Quayle’s self-comparison to JFK. We’ve studied Caesar in history, in literature. Anyone who took Latin read of Caesar’s exploits in his own words. We know Julius Caesar. That guy in the White House is no Julius Caesar.

The fault is not in the stars but in our President. The players have a firm grasp on their characters, but #45 is anything but the brilliant tactician, valiant soldier, and learned scholar Julius Caesar was. In his will, the real Caesar named the people of Rome among his heirs, and much of his property was turned over to the city. He was, in theory at least, a proponent of human rights. In Shakespeare’s version of the tale, he is a true patriot, whose vaulting ambition undermines his love of country. As trusted as a politician might be, that Caesar is an upholder of the Republic, a servant of the people.

The current American POTUS believes in nothing and in no one but himself. His ambition may sometimes pose as patriotism, but he abhors the body politic and disdains his fellow citizens. He is a narcissist, a pompous blowhard, whose rise to power is entirely the folly of the rabble that Marullus addresses at the top of the play as, “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!” These modern day “hard hearts of Rome” have raised up a feeble prince as their savior, and it is his inadequacy that destroys the current production at its core.

Theoretically, this play is an apt mirror unto our times. It’s about the corruption of power, about the way in which the fickle masses aggrandize false prophets, the way we easily relinquish our power to undeserving leaders. And what is art if not the means by which we see ourselves? As Brutus tells Cassius, “ . . . the eye sees not itself/ But by reflection.” If the play were the thing wherein to catch the conscience of a despot, then the slings and arrows of post-Pompey Rome should be the perfect foil for our present morass.

But Shakespeare’s play is lost in a jumble of ill-fitting implications. Having chosen to contemporize the play, Eustis could have preserved it and made it work in the way that some of our best popular entertainment works. Julius Caesar is as much Frank Underwood (House of Cards) or Don Draper (Mad Men) as he is the self-proclaimed Roman god. If Eustis had cast a Trump-ish leader without the multiple specifics that make this one exclusively Donald Trump, the play might have prevailed. It might have been set anywhere in the US, the title character played as any generic American politician. The satire would be obvious. The audience would extrapolate the underlying meaning without graphic detail. The writing is strong enough to work without the cartoonishly overblown visual references this director supplies. But Eustis doesn’t trust us.

His Julius Caesar is more about itself than it is about anything verging on what Shakespeare created. This JC strides the earth like a Donald-cloned Colossus, replete with the long red tie and the bright yellow pompadour. His Calpurnia (Tina Benko) walks with a sneer and speaks with an exaggerated Slovenian accent. There is no doubt who these two are. Eustis is so afraid we won’t get it, he even adds words to Caesar’s opening statements, having him directly address the good people of New York, telling them he is the greatest, that he will please them bigly. Then, just to be sure we haven’t missed it, he sets the scene preceding the murder in a bathtub full of steaming water. Calpurnia, rolling all her Rs and jumbling her sentence structure, almost succeeds in seducing him into staying at home on this dangerous Ides of March. But when the conspirators arrive and convince him he must to the Senate and receive his just rewards, this Orange Julius stands so that everyone can see his shriveled little appendage. Thanks, Mr. Eustis.

Calpurnia (Tina Benko) uses body language to dissuade her Caesar (Gregg Henry) from leaving his home on his fateful day. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The production definitely improved after Caesar’s death. But even then, it reminded me more of a high school theater’s attempt at satire. The addition of crowds chanting “We rise” and “Resist” and other all-too-recognizable standards was cheap, amateurish. The hand was so overplayed that the overall experience was numbing.

Which was too bad on many levels.

Brutus (Corey Stoll) and Cassius (John Douglas Thompson) seal their deal. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Some wonderful acting got lost in the melee. Corey Stoll’s brooding Brutus is a thoughtful intellectual. But played in the light of the stunningly farcical Caesar, he seems more like the supercilious guy from the SNL “Deep Thoughts” routine of years ago. John Douglas Thompson is a powerful Cassius, whose ardor and sincerity work well when he is in scenes with Stoll’s Brutus but look ridiculous when he’s anywhere near the other characters and the absurdity of the staging. Stoll and Thompson are in a play of their own. Whenever they must interact with the rest of the company, they are like characters from a Pirandello scenario experimenting with interpretations. Especially when they are playing scenes opposite this feeble Julius Caesar. Or Marc Anthony.

Elizabeth Marvel’s Anthony, with an on-again-off-again Southern accent, is as much a cartoon as the slain hero she mourns. She reminded me more of the television version of Wonder Woman than of anyone cunning enough to have led the retaliation forces that shape the play’s action. I love that a woman is entrusted with this role. I wish the actor, who has played so many powerful, strong-willed, charismatic leaders in her past, had had license to embody a soldier I might have believed.

Nor is Gregg Henry culpable. He plays Julius Caesar exactly as the production demands. Which makes for an overlong SNL skit – where he’d give Alex Baldwin some real competition – rather than anything close to real dramatic art. If this were a sketch by the Uptown Citizens’ Brigade, I’d give him a standing ovation. Alas, it’s Shakespeare in the Park.

And something I’m a bit unclear about here. When Julius Caesar is assassinated, there is no question that the man with the tight suit and the impervious swagger is the present POTUS. Which means that in essence, it is #45 who is stabbed in effigy. How is that not treason? How does this not cross the line? And when the line is crossed, how is the satirist any less officious and self-important than his subject?

It’s all well and good to time bend, gender bend, and story bend in Shakespeare. Two Verona gentlemen dancing blithely in ‘70s hip-hop psychedilia, a midsummer night’s dream transpiring in a floating phantasm of umbrellas, and Coriolanus as a Nazi general are easily acceptable. Each is a fitting transformation. Shakespeare wrote characters and stories that breathe universally over time and across any era. But in order for the re-juxtaposing to work, the basic assumption must be appropriate.

In the end, Julius Caesar is not a comedy of errors, and it doesn’t play well as one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Power to the People

“Get down on your knees to remember what it’s like when the people
with power
literally loom over you.” 
Roald Dahl

The suggestion that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Price, now playing on Broadway, are comparable might leave the impression that I am delusional. Or painfully simplistic. And I hardly expect that anyone will run out to see the two back-to-back as I did last week. But I did, and I am compelled to point out the commonalities. And I’m not stretching.

Obviously, the plays represent vastly differing worlds. Charlie is a musical based on a children’s book by Roald Dahl. It takes place on the streets of London and in a fantastical candy factory. The Price is a drama, written by the iconic American tragedian Arthur Miller. This one is set in a prewar New York apartment, about to be torn down. But they were written by left-leaning writers deep in the throes disillusionment. Each features a protagonist who has been victimized by the vagaries of economics. Both reflect a kind of nostalgia for a humanity that is all too rare in our greed-driven society.

Arthur Miller’s The Price, on Broadway, starring (l to r) Jessica Hecht, Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub, and Danny DeVito.  Photo courtesy of The Roundabout Theatr.

What began my thinking process was the set of the current production of The Price, directed by Terry Kinney. In this iteration, designer Derek McLane has taken Miller’s hyper-real descriptions and created a surreal environment. The regal old world furniture of the bygone era of the family’s fortune flies suspended like memory over the action of the play. Memory is addled by time and perspective. We cannot trust it. But it dangles insistently, sometimes as a comfort but more often as a Damocles sword.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is entirely surreal. The play, with music and lyrics by Mark Shaiman and book by David Grieg, is set in the realm of the imagination. Memories mesh with wishes and become a kind of armor. Director Jack O’Brien and Designer Mark Thompson have kept the stage starkly simple.  The audience must suspend disbelief and accept this world as a real possibility.  Otherwise they miss the play’s fundamental truth.  Without his fancy, Charlie Bucket (Ryan Sell on the day I attended), might never see what life has to offer. Along with Charlie, we must reach out to worlds “not yet conceived, worlds that must be believed to be seen.”

Charlie is a member of a family so poor they eat rotten Brussels sprouts and make soup from moldy cabbage. His mother Mrs. Bucket (Emily Padgett), a widow, is responsible to feed an absurdly large number of mouths. She has no time or patience for the world of imagination that holds her son in its thrall. She wishes she were free to dream, but she’s been crushed by circumstance. Charlie’s four grandparents live in a single bed in the loft above the kitchen of their little flat. At first, none of them is able to leave that bed. The entire contingent seems cynical, resigned to their predicament, willing to remain prisoners of their poverty.

Grandpa Joe (John Rubenstein), Charlie’s paternal grandfather, is 96 and a half, “about as old as a man can be.” He worked for Willy Wonka when Wonka had nothing but a candy store and then became a security guard at the factory. But spies infiltrated the chocolate world and stole the recipes, forcing Wonka to fire everyone, including Mr. Bucket. Mr. Bucket is not bitter. He understands that his firing was a symptom of the company’s overall failure. And the company’s failure as a sign of the times.

As the story commences, Wonka (Christian Borle) has only just begun to recommence production of his most famous chocolate bar. The Golden Tickets he has hidden in the candy bars serve two purposes. They offer incentives for customers to try the candy and become fans. And they provide Wonka with an opportunity to seek out an honest person to inherit his legacy. He seems to be a man who will cheat even so sweet a boy as Charlie just to make a buck. But things are not as they seem.

In the current production, directed by Jack O’Brien, Charlie is a blithe spirit. He breezes through his troubles without resentment and greets his dismally accoutered world with unerring optimism. When he meets Willy Wonka disguised as a local candy store proprietor, he perceives a chance to be useful and subjugates his own burning desire for the Golden Ticket to the older man’s need for an assistant. He is not paid for his labor, and he never complains, even when a paycheck might enable him and his surreal coterie of bedridden forebears a decent meal. Wonka is a devious guy, squirrely, avaricious. But by the end of the play our suspicions about him are proved true: he’s a sensitive despot, a kind master. He manipulates fate a bit so that Charlie’s wishes can come true.

When Charlie finally finds a ticket after several unsuccessful attempts, he stands out among the winners as the only respectful, grateful presence in the group. Wonka has met him but in disguise and knows what to expect from Charlie, and Charlie does not disappoint. He is unfailingly concerned for the well-being of the others, and he is scrupulously honest and forthright. Charlie is the only contestant, whose eyes are not blinded by the grand prize.

He navigates every moment, present and cognizant of what is around him. He sincerely seeks to learn all there is to know about making chocolate, inventing new treats. He may be poor, but he has real soul. He has drive, but he is not driven to thwart others in his pursuit of his goals. He is a mensch. And this, we come to learn, is what Willie Wonka had hoped he would be. The meek shall inherit after all.

The Price protagonist Victor Franz (Mark Ruffalo) is walking collateral damage. His father lost everything in the Great Crash of 1929, and Victor’s future was compromised. He missed his chance to go to MIT and “be somebody.”   But Victor never questioned his responsibility. He moved in with Dad, took care of him when he was incapacitated, and sacrificed his will to the needs of the older man. He may not be as jovial as Charlie, but he is no less circumspect. He understands what his choices were, and he has no regrets. He has served as a policeman, has raised a fine son, has never stopped loving his cynical, needy wife (Jessica Hecht).

Victor’s wife is endlessly dissatisfied with everything except her husband, to whom she is unerringly loyal. But she wants more than he has to offer. She begs him to sell the contents of his father’s house at an inflated price. She wishes to buy her way into a life she deems more suitable than that of a policeman’s wife. Knowing the antiques appraiser is on his way, she encourages Victor to embellish the worth of his father’s belongings, to lie about their provenance.

Victor’s older brother Walter (Tony Shalhoub) also encourages the younger man to sell out to the highest bidder. Victor sees the inherent worth in the memories imbedded in his father’s furniture. Walter sees only the dollar value. He wants Victor to find a cutthroat appraiser/salesman, one who will fetch the highest price. There is no honor in memory, he insists. Only in wealth.

Mark Ruffalo, as Vincent Franz, and Danny Devito as Gregory Solomon in Arthur Miller’s The Price . (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The appraiser Gregory Solomon (Danny DeVito). is a possible agent of change not unlike Willy Wonka . Solomon, like Willy, is a purveyor of goods and seems to be out to take advantage of the honest man. But, like Wonka, Solomon appreciates the younger man’s honesty and his integrity. In the end, he enables Victor to keep his integrity, to remain faithful to his way of life. Victor will retain his Name. In an Arthur Miller play, the name is all.

It would be tempting to liken the productions on other levels. Danny DeVito,for example, making his Broadway debut, seems to have taken a few moves from Christian Borle’s play book. His Solomon is a Vaudeville version of Borle’s Commedia-based Wonka; both milk physical presence to augment the humorous irony of their characters. But that’s not the point.

We live in an era when most of us feel like Dahl’s intended audience. We are all “on their knees,” looking up at the giant fist of oligarchic power. Too many of us know what it is to be derided, as Victor is, for being satisfied with remaining in the economic middle class. We’ve felt the ridicule that Charlie endures for being poor. What makes both The Price and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory so satisfying is that their heroes stand in and up for us.  They show the world that right is might in all the ways that matter.

Christian Borle as Willy Wonka, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, now playing on Broadway (photo Courtesy of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre).

Best of all, neither Victor nor Charlie has lost his way. Neither has given in to the pressure to embrace the attitudes of those who perceive the un-rich as “losers.” Both have retained an innocence and a positivity that enables them to revel in their successes. By being good, honest people, they believed they would prevail. And despite encountering others whose greed and pride could undermine them, they do.

 

 

Nigel Bray’s Pride and Joy

Mr. Lucky’s subject and author Nigel Bray

Recently, a dear friend asked me to review Nigel Bray’s memoir Mr Lucky.  I admire my friend, value her sensibilities, and agreed to do so.  It’s not a book I would ever have chosen to critique.  But writing a book is a huge accomplishment that deserves to be acknowledged.  So here are my thoughts about Mr. Bray’s brave adventure.

The book is not a polished piece of literature.  Nor does it claim to be.  It’s a story.  Often harrowing. It’s the kind of true story we hear all too often.  It’s the story of growing up gay and seeking self-acceptance.  Yet another account of how society demoralizes and how important it is for each of us to become our own saviors.

Bray is a forthright narrator, which makes him immediately reliable.  His voice rings clearly without self-pity.  Bray has assembled the pieces of his life into a meandering memoir that entertains and at turns enlightens.  This is a man who chose apt role models and then evolved.  He is his own hero, a man whose life and book are achievements I applaud.

I will leave the final word to the Amazon tag, which says of the book:

I will leave you with what the Amazon tag says about the book:

This is the story of Mr. Lucky – a misnomer if there ever was one! Follow him from him being a spoilt brat, a nascent homo, a fledgling pooflet and drama queen, on his adventures through school and College, to living in London through the madness and the sadness of the crazy 80s, during which he finds the perfect opportunities to find himself – and discovers he was right all along! G.A.Y.! FANTABULOSA! Disaster follows disaster, japes go wrong, relationships fail (mostly because he’s a fool and doesn’t know his arse from his elbow), friends die and everything’s awful. So he returns home, to Cornwall: new life, new house, new job – but same old heap of trouble. You’d think he’d learn from past mistakes, but….. Skipping through the detritus of broken hearts, a terrible thing happens and his life changes forever and Three Tall Women, each their various ways, get him through. And then, finally, after the most awful thing imaginable, the Man in the Big Red Shoes appears and he finally walks out into the light. Mr. Lucky IS lucky, after all. We do like a happy ending…..

 

How Can We Not Resist? (reprinted from Medium.com)

Photo by Aylan Kurdi

Photo by Aylan Kurdi

That photo. The Syrian baby lying face down in the water.

I can’t bear to look at it, yet I cannot look away. That beautiful child, so like children I have loved, so very like my own grandchild now living in a faraway land, who will never feel welcome in her parent’s homeland.

As the child of immigrants, who would not exist had my family not figured out how to circumvent the ban on refugees in 1939 that deemed Poles too dark, too swarthy to be admitted, especially if they were Jews, how can I not abhor the implications of that photo? How can I not scream murder, now that the Predator-in-Chief has exercised his Executive Privilege and has broken the law by banning refugees from seven countries, including Syria, whose people are being massacred and cannot stay where they are.

In school, the lessons we learned in Civics classes taught us that America was not only the land of the free and home of the brave but also the land of Checks and Balances. We have three branches of government so that no one branch becomes too powerful. Why is the judiciary allowing this flagrant law breaking to happen? Why is the Legislature not standing up for the laws they have enacted?

It is clear that it is up to us, The People to demand that our Union be treated with respect. We cannot accept the abuse, cannot allow the current state of affairs to become normalized. We must defy this executive order that, like the other 44 that have been ramrodded through in the past ten days, defies understanding. And this executive order is the one that is the most indefensible thus far.

Because this order sets a precedent. It paves the way for more heinous implications. It puts every one of us in jeopardy though it is being advertised as a measure to protect us from interlopers. In truth, it is a measure to divide us, to terrify us, to make us look for bogeymen in our closets, under our beds, next door, in our communities.

And in time, it will allow each of us to be banned in our turn.

The bare truth is that not one American has ever been killed by anyone from any of the seven banned countries. Even 9/11, which was one of the few acts of violence enacted on American soil by outsiders, was not perpetrated by anyone from any country on the banned list. It was orchestrated almost openly, defiantly, by Jihadists in Saudi Arabia, a country with whom the Bushes were accused of colluding, a country with whom the Trump Koch oligarchs who want to strangle America have deep financial ties, a country saliently not included on the ignominious list. The countries listed are homes to some of the poorest, neediest, most endangered souls on this earth.

There is a pattern here, part of the pattern being woven domestically. The Oligarchy is moving toward hording all our resources. It will eliminate the poor and the working poor and the middle class by putting health care and assistance and ample education out of our reach. And it will circle the wagons to keep the poor out and let only the wealthy in

Yet Americans buy the Kool-Aid, drink it willingly, feel grateful that they are being protected from some encroaching danger that is aiming its slings and arrows at the core of our existences. It’s easy to stick the Muslims out. So many of us don’t comprehend who they are, what they represent, what they believe. Propoganda is powerfully effective, the sugar that sweetens our sadder realities.

Terrorism by Muslims makes up less than one-third of one percent of all murders in this country. A far greater percentage are the result of domestic violence, violence that this administration would like to decriminalize.

This same administration will make it increasingly impossible for gun safety laws to be enacted. Your neighbor’s middle-aged aunt in Somalia who needs a heart transplant may be blocked from entry to our country, but guns being transported from illegal points of distribution worldwide are under no such scrutiny. Any angry husband almost anywhere in America can find a way to get a gun to kill his family.

The current nominee for Secretary of Education suggests we need guns in schools to protect our children from grizzly bears though she cannot have possibly missed the fact that not one single child has been massacred in a grizzly bear attack. Many have, however, been cut down in far more grizzly attacks by disgruntled white teenagers or white supremacists or locally disenfranchised misfits, for whom assault weapons are easier to obtain than Twizzlers.

No single school at any level in any community of any part of this country has been attacked by terrorists from anywhere abroad. But since a heavily armed, sociopathic teen gunned down twenty six- and seven-year-olds plus six of their care givers and teachers, gun violence in schools continues its steady rise.

Somehow, it has become okay for white psychopaths to terrorize our families, but it’s not okay for the huddled masses to seek refuge in the arms of Lady Liberty.

Most shocking to me is that there is a faction of pseudo-religious zealots, who call themselves pro-lifers cheering for these Draconian measures, trumpeting their approval, insisting that our resistance should be put down. They claim to advocate for the unborn children who deserve to live.

How can this photo not move them to rise up against such blatant hypocrisy?

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photo by Aylan Kurdi