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.

 

 

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The Golden Playwright – a conversation with David Henry Hwang

Reprinted from The Columbia Journal online.

 

 

dhw1David Henry Hwang (Columbia Univerity School of the Arts Website)

I am on the phone with David Henry Hwang, the Concentration Head of the Playwriting program in the Drama Division of Columbia University’s School of the Arts, and I’ll admit it:  I’m a nervous wreck.  David’s affable manner, his warmth, his easy conversational tone should put me at ease, but omigod I’m talking to David Henry Hwang, the author of more great plays than most of us will see in a lifetime as well as screenplays, opera and musical theater libretti . . . he has even scripted Disney cartoon features and supervised the transition to a web mini-series of his play Yellowface. Nominated for three Tonys, he has won one, and he has  twice been a finalist for a Pulitzer in drama and is the recipient of three OBIEs.

Awe has struck me.

There is a history here. Back in 2001, as I searched for the perfect musical for the spring production I had been hired to direct in a suburban Connecticut school, I read in Variety that Hwang had rehabilitated the book of Rogers and Hammerstein’s The Flower Drum Song.  The article, by Steven Oxman, explained that Hwang had transformed the embarrassingly stereotyped Asian-Americans depicted in the book Hammerstein wrote with Joseph Fields and had reimagined and adapted the story. Hwang re-set the play in both China and San Francisco, gave it a political context, and eliminated the arranged marriage on which the premise of the original script depended.  “Hwang manages to have it both ways,” Oxman wrote, “commenting on the entertainment while still delivering it.”  I found myself nodding.

What made me love M Butterfly and F.O.B. (it stands for Fresh Off boat) andThe Golden Child were David Henry Hwang’s astute commentary on and delivery of the entertainment  along with his sharply honed satirical observations. This Flower Drum Song had to be good, a great learning experience for the students in the production I was to direct.

Besides, my kids would be just as impressed as I was. Hwang is no mere playwright.  He is the idol of rock stars.  No kidding.  PRINCE was a fan. Interviewed by Broadway World Magazine in 2016, Hwang effused, “So imagine my groupie heart in 1989, when I opened PEOPLE Magazine to find a picture of Prince, coming out of M. BUTTERFLY, my Broadway show! Prince goes to Broadway? Who knew? He saw my play!”

Apparently, Prince was considering adding a Broadway musical to his credits, and he summoned the playwright to his hotel suite to confer on the prospect of collaboration.  That project never materialized, but Hwang did pen the lyics to Solo, which appears on the album Come and is the B side of the single Let it Go.

No question about it.  The kids would beg me to find a way to get David Henry Hwang to come to Connecticut to see the definitive youth production of his version of The Flower Drum Song.

It wasn’t until after I’d read the perusal (from the R & H Library, which handles permissions for the entire canon) that reality hit me.

It was 2002.  Suburban Connecticut.  There were not nearly enough Asians in the school to cast eight Asian leads and a full chorus of singing/dancing Asian kids. And there was no way I would cast the play with white kids.  I had seen enough interviews, read enough of Hwang’s essays to know that yellow facing – a practice that casts non-Asians in Asian roles –  is one of his most fervent oppositions.  It’s even the subject of one my favorite Hwang plays calledYellowface, which was adapted for the  YOMYOMF network in two parts.

Mounting such a production would offend my sensibilities as much as doingCarousel, which features a woman singing “He’s yer feller and you love him, that’s all there is to that” about a man who has just assaulted her.  No way.

Full disclosure here –Paul Muni, the Polish Jewish actor who played Wang, the farmer, in The Good Earth, was my grandfather’s first cousin.

 

dhw2The Good Earth – MGM Trailer Still

This is a fact that makes me squirm, especially because, like Hwang, I am the of the first generation of children born in America, and I was always troubled by Hollywood’s habitual casting of actors such as Sal Mineo or Robert DeNiro or Charlton Heston to play Jewish characters.  Those were roles that should have gone to any of the myriad Jewish actors in Hollywood and New York, who instead changed their names and lightened their hair and skin so they could play WASPS . . . or who altered their appearances to play the less desirable ethnic roles.  Most offensive to me was the practice, illustrated by Muni’s Wang, of painting eye slants and yellow skin tones, hence the term yellow facing .

On the phone with David Henry Hwang, there’s a bit of a silence between us for a moment, but I swear I can hear his eyes crinkle into a smile as I describe my relationship to Muni. It was a good place to start.  I was trying to get my breath back, to relax into this. I’ve interviewed people I admire before, but, again, this is David Henry Hwang!

It’s going to be okay.  This guy’s a mensch.  I had asked him earlier if he liked being at Columbia, and he said he loves being a professor and a mentor, guiding new talent.  It shows in his demeanor, the gentle encouragement that easily finds its way to my ear.

This is not actually the first time we’ve “talked.”  David Hwang and I have “met”a few times. . . on Twitter, of all places.  In October, after I attended a panel he was on called Convergence/Divergence, I tweeted: The gr8 David Henry Hwang says, ‘Hamilton the musical play of my generation.  Perhaps the musical of the millennium.”  And to my delighted surprise, he replied, “Anyone who can rhyme Rochambeau with ‘go man go’ is genius in my book.”

I was not surprised that what struck him most about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant musical built around linguistic gymnastics was the language itself.  The things I always notice when I read Hwang’s work, echoed now in his voice, are his remarkable economy with language, reinforced by his genius for juxtaposition of sound and usage.  His voice is animated and engaged.  Language is an instrument he clearly loves to play.

I ask him to talk about translation.  One of Hwang’s more notable credits is an adaptation of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt though he doesn’t speak Norwegian.  This version updates and Anglifies the metaphors, relies heavily on contemporary American references to re-tell Ibsen’s version of the Norwegian Everyman. In literary translation, fluency in the original language is far less important than fluidity in the language of the translation.

He tells me that the actual translation, the literal transfer from Norwegian to English, was executed by Director Stephan Muller.

“What I did was craft the language.”  Here he stops to measure his words.  “The trickiest thing is understanding the role of idiom and cultural context.  What do the people do and say in the language or in the culture in which the play is written, and how is that translated into the language and the culture in which the play is being performed.  Then its about the economy of the performance language .  That’s the critical piece. “

“You see that exemplified in translations of musicals or opera.  When I’ve had musicals translated into languages, that’s been interesting, especially at Disney.  Disney was very controlling about the translation.  They had strict guidelines.  They’d contract a literary translation but at the same time hire someone to do a literal back translation, which, theoretically, should be more accurate and provide for authentication.  But it doesn’t come close.  Because in that case all the idioms go away.  Idioms are uninterpretable.”

Translators must consider how each language uses metaphors and idioms differently for even the most trivial of matters. It may make sense, for example, to the Chinese mind, to refer to undisturbed grass as “sleeping,” but the phrase won’t work in English.  By the same token, English phrases like nest egg and bad egg have no correlative in Chinese, and the literal translations can have ridiculous, humorous, even disastrous effect.

 

dhw3

Which is the central preoccupation of Hwang’s play Chinglish, which I saw at the Longacre Theatre in 2011.  Directed by Leigh Silverman, the slapstick linguistics dramatize the way people communicate and fail to communicate across cultural expanses, the way humans are desperate to be understood but fail to understand. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PpP2UIH8U1Y)

The play, delivered in both English and Mandarin, features super-titling that lets the audience in on the super-joke: every time a statement emerges, it is intercepted by a mutilating misinterpretation.  It’s the manifestation of the experience of knowing the language of a foreign film or an opera and reading the subtitles only to find that the audience is being thoroughly misled.  Classic David Henry Hwang virtuosity. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEaLxLdVhv4)

It strikes me as we are talking that several of Hwang’s plays, including Golden Child, Kung Fu (an homage to Bruce Lee), Yellow Face and Chinglish, have been directed by Leigh Silverman, one of the too few women breaking through the glass ceiling in New York theater (Silverman and Hwang).

“Your women,” I venture, “are so well developed, so fully realized.  They’re witty, clever, creative, real.  And you often work with female directors, producers.  Clearly, your collaborations have been successful.  So to what do you attribute the underrepresentation of women in theater and film?”

He takes his time answering.  “You know, it’s part of that other conversation, the bigger discussion about the underrepresentation of ethnicities, the way yellow facing was a way of keeping theater white. We need to make a theater that looks more like America, one that is more about inclusion, which is just as much about gender as it is about race. In the same way that we need more racially true characters and creators, we need more and better women characters, women creators.

“Here’s the problem, and it comes down to money.  Perhaps the greatest impediment to diversity – and this is true in ANY industry – is that bosses and administrators, the people in charge, tend to hire people who look like them.  In theater, they haven’t begun to hire people who look like the audience. The audience has not demanded it yet.  People continue to buy tickets even though they are not seeing themselves represented onstage or in the credits.

“I appreciate that you like my female characters, but I don’t really help things.  My creating good female characters is not the same as having more female writers doing that.  What sets women apart from other minorities is that women are already the majority of theater audiences.  They need to stop buying tickets until they see better female representation.  There is no shortage of talent among the women out there.  Women need to demand to see more of them.  That’s how they affect the change.  It’s up to them.”

We agree that television is leading the charge in this area, and that reminds me that Hwang has recently become involved in writing for television, a medium serious writers used to shy away from.  I wonder what kind of writing he prefers.

So  I ask, “ Which medium do you prefer to work in?”

This time, he doesn’t even take a breath before answering.

“All mediums are divergent and each has advantages and disadvantages, but

theater is my favorite form.  It’s the most personal, has the fewest restrictions to self-expression, and I have the most control or at least the most sense of control as the primary artist, the primary vision, the primary source of the product.

“Then again, I have found that I can take joy in someone else’s project, and I can be very comfortable in collaboration, and this is true for everything from Glass operas to Disney films to The Affair.”

I keep to myself that I blame the presence of his name on The Affair credits for my having discovered it, which has led me into an addiction that has left me hungry for Season 3.

“ I had never worked on a TV show before,” he goes on.  “ I find that I am loving being in the writers’ room at The Affair. . . . I came into it because I was trying to create my own show, and Sarah Treem was a former mentee who had become a dear friend, and she suggested I come work for her and learn fromThe Affair what makes a television show.  So my mentee became my boss, and I am glad to say I am back on for Season 3.”

Be still my heart.

Technically, I have run out of time now, but my generous subject says we have time for a few more questions.

“Back in October, at the Convergence/Divergence Panel, someone asked if the theater is dead, and after a complicated but very wise reply, you said that the infusion of electronic media would breathe new life into the theater, that that is where the future of theater is.  Can you explain what you meant?”

“You know . . . I’m not exactly sure what I meant then.  I do know that theater has greatly benefitted from the digital age whereas some electronic modes, like music, have suffered from it.  Live entertainment flourishes because digital performances are easily pirated while live performance  is unreproduceable.  That makes live shows more valuable than ever. You can’t experience being at a rock concert without being there, and you can’t experience being at a live play without being there.  That increases the value.  Prince figured that out years ago when he gave away CDs at his concerts.  He knew that the CDs would be the best enticement to bring people into the venues for his concerts.

“Also, the presence of the electronic media heightens reality, makes what is live more alive.  We need to find ways to make the live experience more interactive, and electronic media enables that.

“Sports events are finding the same thing.  There is no more need to black out events the way they used to.  The televised version enhances live sales and vice versa. They help each other.”

He stops and breathes.  “Go ahead,” he encourages.  “Ask me more.  This is fun.”

“I do have two more questions if you don’t mind.”

“Shoot.”

“If you could change one thing about the theater – “

“Nope.  I can’t choose one thing.  I’d have to have two at minimum.”

“Okay.  Two then.  What are they?”

“Okay. First –  Ticket prices – How can we make theater accessible to a larger number of people if we allow the ticket prices to be so high?  The business model is the problem.  That needs to change.

“ And also the inclusion thing. We must create an American theater that looks more like America.  Like I said it’s not an issue that’s specific to theater.  By 2040, minorities – particularly Asian – will be the plurality, no longer a minority.  This also speaks to accessibility, don’t you think? Theater is less accessible to those who are excluded.  What’s the other one?”

“Do you have a favorite work?”

He laughs again.  “Look. I’m a father.  I’ll use the kids analogy.  I have three kids, and I love them all equally.  With each, however, I have a particular relationship, just like I do with everything I write. F.O.B. was my first play, before I even knew how to read plays or write them.  It will always be my first.  Some of my plays are overachievers, others are misunderstood.  I love them all. “

After I hang up, I imagine shaking his hand and thinking, “I’ll never wash that hand again.”

 

 

A Little Bit of Sycophancy

Before you read my review of All the Ways to Say I Love You, I would like to say a word about Judith Light.

When I was about to meet the actress in 2003, the prospect did not thrill me at all.

My writing and producing partner Daniel Fine had been invited by the Directors View Film Festival’s Executive Director Robert Kesten to create a tribute event for Arthur Penn, who was that year’s winner of the festival’s Joseph L. Mankiewicz Excellence in Filmmaking Award.imgres-2

Dan and I read and watched Arthur’s vast body of films and fashioned a script from scenes we’d cobbled together for Daniel to direct as a tribute reading. We then invited actors, who had worked with the director onstage as well as in his films, to participate, and though we had no budget to pay the actors or to transport them from any further than New York City, we were able to come up with a formidable company of very talented, willing professionals. When I sent the list to Mr. Penn, he shot back that he was disappointed not to find Judith Light; we hadn’t called her because she was not named as anyone he had previously worked with. “She’s brilliant,” he said, “and I would love to see her. I know she’s back in NY. Why not get in touch? She should read the Gibson stuff,” he said, referring to the pieces from the plays he’d directed by William Gibson. “It’s all written for a tough, smart woman. That’s Judith Light.”

I was skeptical. I mean, all I knew of her was an electronic face I had seen at intervals when passing through the family room, attempting to get my children to turn off that ‘80s television sitcom, predominated by what seemed to me an automaton blonde. But Arthur Penn wanted her in, and who was I to doubt Arthur Penn?whos-boss

Well, Judith Light showed me how wrong I was about her.

She got the script a few hours before the reading, and we had one rehearsal.  But by the time the introductions were made, and the reading began, she had somehow managed to learn several lengthy monologues from the dense Gibson material she was assigned, and she easily swung from making Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s mother (The Miracle Worker and Monday After the Miracle) and Golda Meir (Golda), come alive. They were flawlessly believable. She disappeared first into the subtly Irish Sullivan, then into the patrician Southern gentlewoman and the Russian immigrant American Israeli Prime Minister with polished ease, as though she had been studying the roles her whole life, as though she had rehearsed them forever. imgres-1imgres

I became a fan and have since seen almost everything she has done on stage(she’s since won two Tonys and a host of other accolades) and on streaming video (Amazon’s Transparent, for which she won an Emmy); I am a grateful admirer of the nuanced older women she animates.light-in-transparent

Her Shel Pfefferman has taken her place alongside Grace Hanson and Frankie Bergstein (Grace and Frankie), my much-revered imaginary alter egos.

Which is why I knew she’d be great in All the Ways to Say I Love You.  (My review follows.)

I See Old People!

Grace and Frankie, a Netflix Original Series, Starring Martin Sheen, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston.

Grace and Frankie, a Netflix Original Series, Starring Martin Sheen, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sam Waterston. (Netflix photo)

Sometimes the things that frighten us most when we are young turn out to be the very things that save us when we are old.

I know this because when I was newly married, I was terrified that I would wake up one morning and realize that oh shit my husband didn’t really love me. I used to have nightmares where he would come to where I was eating a salad or shaving my legs, and he would say, “You know I don’t love you. I never did.” And I would wake up screaming, “Please no. Don’t say that. Noooo.”

But by the time I had been married for twenty-five or so years, I began to see that I could do very well without him, that my fear had set me up to allow myself to be taken for granted, and worse, to be emotionally and verbally abused.

In the end, I was the one who left.

Looking back, realizing that my fears were, in fact, grounded, that we really didn’t love each other enough, that he failed to love me in the way I deserved to be loved, fueled my decision to move out. Ten years later, I have to say, I want to call him up and thank him for all the times he called me names or refused to buy something I needed or threw something at me in a rage. If he had been more loving, I might still be with him, and all my energy would be suffocated out of me instead of channeled into rebuilding my Self. I’m better off.

My experience was not unique. Many women, especially in our blooming boomer days, when being married, being loved were a woman’s salvation, when her route to a credit card or even a bank account was closed off unless she had a man or was fabulously well off, accepted – settled for – less than we actually wanted because we believed we had no choice. Most of us stayed put, and many of those who left were pushed out by that long-feared, oft-dreaded blow. “I just don’t love you anymore.”

Which is the premise on which Grace and Frankie, the Netflix original series, starring Jane Fonda as Grace and Lily Tomlin as Frankie, is based. They are jilted wives set adrift by their husbands Robert (Martin Sheen) and Sol (Sam Waterston), only to discover that being discarded is the greatest gift either husband ever gave them.

Grace and Frankie: the great divide. (photo from Netflix)

Grace and Frankie: the great divide. (Netflix photo)”The men are never demonized, are heroic in their way.”

At the beginning of Season One, Robert and Sol disclose to Grace and Frankie, women who’ve entered their 70s believing they were in rock-solid marriages, that both marriages are over. For twenty of the forty years they have been together, both men, who shared a law practice and were apparently devoted to their wives and families, have been carrying on a secret love affair. It’s time, they tell the women, that they came out once and for all; they are getting married, and nothing the women can say or do will change their minds.

The women are devastated. How will they ever live without these men, who have been the center of their lives for most of their adulthood? Over the course of the initial thirteen episodes, however, they learn to adjust; in the end both realize from individual epiphanies that they were never fully themselves as married women, that each has compromised herself and has lost sight of who she was to begin with.

perfect and hippie

Too perfect, too hippiedippiedoo (Netflix)

In Season Two, Grace and Frankie have accepted the rearrangement of their lives. They have learned to like each other enough to actually enjoy sharing the beach house to which they have been summarily exiled by their ex-husbands; it is a house the men jointly bought for the two families, and in the past, the women had gone out of their way to avoid getting to know one another intimately. Grace is too body-obsessed, too protocol-conscious, too money-hungry for Frankie’s taste, and as far as Grace is concerned, Frankie is too weird, too hippiedippiedoo, too 60s-leaning addled.But lo and behold, they find that the women buried in the personae they’ve become have more in common than they ever imagined, and together they set about figuring out who they might be under the camouflage.

I do not mean to suggest that Grace and Frankie represent the majority of my sisters. Nor have I stopped believing in happy marriages; I know that those do exist, and Grace and Frankie are by no means the “normal,” which I believe there is such a thing. But I identify with them. They resonate for me in ways female characters of my own generation rarely do. They are fleshy women who transcend the caricatures of older women we are usually presented with: dotty bats or bitchy, lonely success icons. Except that they are too rich and live a life too rife with options, they are real. . . and flawed.

Grace and Frankie are damaged goods. Grace can’t get through a day without excessive amounts of alcohol, and she rarely eats, slavishly catering to her nearly anorexic body, protecting the copious dollars she has expended in preserving her looks. Frankie needs mind alteration and seeks it out in peyote, in ganja, in muscle relaxers; she calls herself an artist but has been unfaithful to her art and has hidden herself in new age homilies and soporifics. Each of them experiences a crisis that leads to a shared epiphany: Frankie’s religious beliefs and spirituality are tested by the dying wish of an old friend, and Grace’s are challenged by the booze and a near affair with an old, still-married flame (Sam Eliot).

Grace and Frankie at the beach

Grace and Frankie at the beach (Netflix)

At the end of the second season, both women are forced to come to terms with the need to take hold of their lives, when Robert and Sol present yet another fâit-accomplit – they have put the house they have been living in on the market and are planning to move out. The house, which was where Robert and Grace raised their daughters, went to Robert in the divorce settlement, but the announcement that the men are divesting themselves of this vestige of their old lives sets off a firestorm of revelations.

Sol, seeking to clear his tortured conscience before he moves into the next phase of his new life, tells Frankie he fabricated a story of how, when they were very young, he had sold a piece of her art work off the wall of his law office to a famous client. The story has been Frankie’s life raft of self-confidence. She is devastated, protesting, “It’s the one thing that proved to me that I was really an artist!”

A few moments later, Robert gives Grace a carton filled with “thoughtfully” prepared gift boxes, each containing a pre-wrapped item of jewelry, pre-staged with an anticipatory card attached.

There’s a gold necklace: “Sorry you had a bad day.”

And a diamond bracelet: “To Grace. Thinking of you with love. Robert”

An emerald ring. “Happy anniversary to Grace from Robert with love.”

Another and another, each signed “Love, Robert.”

“Seriously?” Grace bellows. “They’re not personal. . . . It’s like a jar of treats for a dog. . . . . “ She stops, lost for words.

“I used to think,” she goes on, fighting the tears, “how nice! Robert went out and got me something because he knew I was sad. Or . . . Robert got me something special because he knew I was right, and he was wrong. But that wasn’t it at all. It wasn’t for me at all. It was for you, so you wouldn’t have to deal with me. So you didn’t even have to think about me. . . . We’d have a fight, and you’d give me a gift from your stash. I used to think you gave me gifts because, I don’t know, you weren’t a talker. But it was to keep me quiet, hunh? To manage me. To handle me. Never, not once was it because you loved me.

“I never understood our marriage until right now.”

All at once, with just the subtlest shift of her body and a gentle sigh, Grace is grateful that her marriage is over. To learn, a year after the divorce, that your husband never really loved you is the worst lie to own up to because it’s a lie you had to be telling yourself or it never would have flown.

Frankie, too, must come to terms with the great lie between her and Sol. She has built her trust on Sol, based on his assertion that he sold her painting so easily because he and the client were so impressed with the art. He thinks he did her a favor.

“I believed in you and wanted you to believe in you too,” he says. He’s sincere. Which makes it all the worse.

Because it is so entirely dismissive. He has robbed her of respect, has failed to trust that she could own her own need to develop her art; he perceived her to be such a child that he needed to candy coat a truth that might have engendered her professional growth.

Grace agrees and accuses Sol of belittling Frankie.

“I was not belittling her,” Sol declares. “I was not dismissing her. . . .”

“Oh really,” Frankie rejoins, “Because ‘her’ is still in the room, and it feels a little dismissive to ‘her’.”

Too pervasively, we women – especially women of the baby boom generation – are programmed to accept men’s condescension, to feel flattered when they humor us, when they patronize us, when they throw us bones. We all have learned to call ourselves happy when our men acquiesce to allowing us to live, even as we stifled our own breath.

Grace and Frankie cogently captures that dynamic, the underlying and agitating essence of what taints too many marriages. It makes the show a continual revelation, a source of satisfying binge watching for this older woman, who hardly expected to see herself represented on the small screen.

Grace and Frankie is not perfect. Although I’m grateful that the show doesn’t pander to the view of older women as finished products, I wish there were less emphasis on the women’s quest to find the right man. They are so much more complete when they don’t kowtow to the opposite sex. But the men they are interested in are far more interesting than the men who have thrown them to the curb, so there is a relief in that.

I also wish that the women’s substance abuse were a subject for more serious investigation. Perhaps it will be in Season 3, when they embark on their next adventure together. I don’t want to see them continue to get in their own way, to stifle their own ability to make themselves happy.

But it is refreshing that neither woman is willing to put up with the stream of put-downs we usually hear in sitcoms; nor is either reduced to silly one-liners that put their men in their places. This is no Everybody Loves Raymond battle of the sexes. It’s rich, convoluted, frustrating, confusing, terrifying, exhilarating real life.

And the men are never demonized. They are easily loveable, even heroic in their own way – after all they have come out to family, friends, colleagues, the world, and have married after 70. That’s courageous. Both former couples are fully fleshed characters, and the actors play them with remarkable aplomb. In a way, because they have clearly found a perfect niche, Sam Waterston steals the show from Sheen, as Jane Fonda does from Tomlin. Still, Tomlin and Sheen are wonderful; this is a full complement of entirely credible actors deftly playing deeply human roles.

I called this a sitcom. That’s not accurate. I guess one would call it a dramedy. I warn you, I cry at least twice in each episode. The stories cut close to the soul, and they can wring emotion I forgot I felt.

I do laugh. But mostly when it hurts.G & Frankie like each other

 

I Got a Kick . . . At the Opera!

As a rule, I am not a big fan of musical theater. I want my mind engaged when I go to the theater, and the familiar tropes and clichés of most musicals work better than personal ohms to make me drift into mindlessness. There are exceptions to my taste aversion, the stellar standouts, which include anything by Stephen Sondheim, Rent, Roar of the Greasepaint, HAMILTON and a few others. But even as a director of educational theater, who helmed at least two musicals a year, I was hard to please.

Which is why I most often chose very difficult musicals for my students to perform – the very operatic Most Happy Fella and Sondheim’s dark and cynical Sweeney Todd, for example. I am a very tough customer. And I am not likely to trust local regional theater, wherever I might be.

Which is curious, considering that I lived for many years in the New Haven, CT, area, and I had access to some of America’s best regional theaters. I trusted Long Wharf Theatre, Hartford Stage, and Yale Repertory, whose productions I attended religiously. But except for one musical at Long Wharf that I rather liked (about an English teacher), I tended to head to New York when I wanted to check out a play for my kids or to see what was new in the musicals canon.

And that is how I failed to discover the Goodspeed Opera House.

Well, that is not exactly accurate. I knew about the Goodspeed.  I  had even been to the building and had walked the premises. But  I had never gone inside, had never seen a production.

Until last week.

My good friend and colleague Denise Lute was featured as the batty Mrs. Harcourt in Anything Goes, and I decided it was time to take the leap, convincing my best buddy to drive with me from New York to Haddam. Well, blow Gabriel, blow and ain’t it de-lovely! If Anything Goes is an example of what’s been going on out there at the Goodspeed, then I have been a fool. Thank goodness I have lived long enough to get past my prejudices and enjoy this epiphany.

Anything Goes was absolute perfection, from start to finish, a joy to behold and a revelation of phenomenal talent.

Which, as Denise pointed out over dinner, should not be a surprise. After all, everyone in the cast has a host of impressive credits. “My Kingsley (Kingsley Leggs, who plays Eli J. Whitney, Mrs. Harcourt’s boyfriend)”, she averred, “was in Color Purple, Sister Act, etc., David (Harris, who plays the romantic lead) is a hot (and I mean HOT) star in Australia, and Rashidra (Scott), well, she’s here because Beautiful let her take a leave of absence. She’s got a feature role in that one!”  High praise coming from Denise Lute, who works more than most actors I know, a veteran of the Actors’ Studio. Still, I would not have been so easily convinced. Anyone can make a resume sound far more impressive than it is.

Rashidra

Rashidra Scott as Reno Sweeney in Goodspeed Opera’s Anything Goes (photo courtesy of CT Post).

But the cast gels in ensemble synchronicity from the stimulating opener to the rousing finish. Rashidra Scott is in almost every scene and leads the ensemble in dancing that runs the gambit from tap to jazz to ballet to salsa with her fleet feet dancing in perfect alignment with her megavoice. She really stands out.

Because she practically carries the show. But honestly, there’s not a bad apple in this crate. Every single person in the cast sings, dances, acts. Even Trixie, the dog Denise’s character carries compulsively through most of the play, is remarkable, so mellow she could have convincingly played a stuffed animal.

Denise and Trixie

Cheeky (Trixie the Pomeranian) in the arms of Mrs. Harcourt (Denise Lute). Photo by Tim Cook/The Day

I would have preferred less mugging and ad-libbing by Stephen DeRosa, who plays Moonface Martin, Public Enemy #2, but that’s because I’m a writer (script sacrosanctity!) and a former acting teacher (be generous, babies; don’t steal the light); the crowd there loved him, and so he mugged harder and ad-libbed all the more vigorously.

To tell the truth, if I were to say to one person in the show “You’re the top,” it would be to choreographer Kelli Barclay. I haven’t seen dancing like this anywhere. The dance in this show was more than just a fun interlude. In many cases, the dance captured pieces of story that were not clearly elucidated or they underscored a subtext the audience could easily have missed. The book is simplicity itself, with no intricate story lines, no metaphorical messages to darken or clutter the story, but the characters might come off as stick figures or cartoons were it not for the choreography. Barclay’s choreography endows Reno Sweeny and Billy Crocker, and even Moonface Martin with a humanity that is not in the script, is not clear in the music.

One of the difficulties of a show like Anything Goes is that the vacuity of story and absence of characterization can leave the audience a bit numb. Even while they are having fun, they might be inclined to turn off a bit, to withhold investment in the people the actors are playing. Barclay’s dances ensure that the audience cares about all of them, even about the ensemble characters we hardly know at all.

Director Daniel Goldstein can take credit for opening a world and for making sure that all the elements of the production are of that world. The design of the set by Wilson Chin is simple but elegant, very old-school theatrical, with small revolves, wagons and flies providing a variety of sub-sets. The costumes by Ilona Somogyi are adorable, respectful of the bodies they adorn and time-period-appropriate, in colors that enhance the set design. Lights, by Brian Tovar are unnoticeable and flawless, but sound was slightly lacking, as there were whole chunks of dialogue that were inaudible or indiscernible where I was sitting in the front left orchestra.

Best of all, what Goldstein has achieved, what directors hope for and too often miss, is a cast and crew that loves being together, loves making this show, loves Cole Porter, loves everything about being in Haddam on the stage of the Goodspeed Opera House. That’s remarkable. It’s hard to pull off a show that’s based on the music of a beloved song writer and refrain from making it more than it is or less than it can be. An American in Paris on Broadway very graphically proved that to me. No one had any fun in that show, at least on the day I saw it. And the writers and director, in adding tried dark drama to the simple storyline, muddied the waters and detracted from the beauty of the music. The actors were great ballet dancers but could not act, and the dancing told no story. The play was merely an exhibition, a total disappointment. And the antithesis of Anything Goes.

Which taught me a valuable lesson. I must lose all NYC snobbery. Theater in the boondocks –like it or not, folks, the Goodspeed Opera House is in the idyllic boondocks, on the banks of the CT River – can be well worth the requisite battle to reach it through horrific Connecticut (worst in summertime) traffic.

goodspeed

It’s too late to see this production of Anything Goes, which closed  June 16. But there will be other productions – check them out here. And be sure to watch for work by people like Rashidra Scott, Denise Lute, Daniel Goldstein, and Kelli Barclay.

Himself and Nora, an off-Broadway show about James and Nora Joyce, about which I was skeptical about until I realized it features Barclay’s choreography, sounds like a great prospect. There’s lots of subtext in that marriage to elucidate through dance. My guess is that it can’t miss.

 

 

At Best A Tepid Tempest in the Park (Reprinted by permission of Catch & Release, the Columbia Journal Online

It is downright unpatriotic to be a New Yorker and walk out on a performance at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater in the middle of A Shakespeare in the Park production. But that’s just what I did. After I stood in the sun for two hours waiting to be handed two free tickets, I looked the city’s gift horse in the mouth by throwing my hands at mid-show and walking – no, running – away. It felt blasphemous. It felt treacherous. It felt good.

The air was cold, the seats were hard, the show stank, and after forty years of attending what Shakespeare in the Park I was lucky enough to get tickets for, I felt like I had earned the right to stalk away in an exasperated huff. Especially since the Public apparently feels like it has earned the right to present so unimpressive a production as this one.

The critics have been generous with the show.  While they have found some fault, overall, they are loathe to come down hard on it, and this perplexes me. Having spent much of my life studying theater and acting, directing student productions, reading copious amounts of criticism and history, taking a dramaturgy practicum at Columbia, I know that even if some people disagree with my assessment, I cannot possibly be alone. If any other production with such a high profile failed so miserably as this one, the critics would be screaming their displeasure at the city. But The Public Theater’s annual Delacorte starfest is a sacred institution, dependent on donations and sponsorships, and no one wants to be the little boy pointing brazenly at the emperor’s nudity.

Which is too bad. Because good criticism should make the program grow stronger; in a perfect world, sponsors and patrons would want to invest more money in the idea that making really good theater requires making some really terrible mistakes. That to suggest that something is not as good as it should be is to encourage it to reach its own potential.

Why, then,  does my feeling of treachery persist when I say that the production was flat, that it created no magic and no island, that it had no sorcerer of any kind performing miracles in a play that, at its best, is one miracle after another?

There was a time when I attended the shows at the Delacorte knowing that I would see great acting, thoughtful design, coherent directing. In this production of The Tempest, the directing is unfocused, and the actors get away with blunders that would not be tolerated in the remotest hinterland productions. Once upon a time, actors donated their time and in return found grateful fans, who followed their careers. This show featured an actor who was cast despite the fact that he is absolutely wrong for the part simply because he is a beloved New York icon.

Audiences come to the shows to see faces they recognize from elsewhere. The star-studded Shakespeare in the Park productions have turned into the kind of stuff tourists’ dreams are made on, just like the mini Chocolate theme park called the M & M experience that draws out-of-towners off the tour buses at midtown. So casting is not always as thoughtfully executed as it should be.

I knew better from the start.  I should have eschewed this production of The Tempest altogether.  I was aware of this beforehand and was reminded while waiting on the line at the designated 135th Street spot for ticket distribution when one of the Public Theater pages came out to tout the show. He announced with great pride that Prospero would be “played by Sam Waterston, whom you all know from his amazing work as Jack McCoy on Law and Order.” I groaned. I did not want to see Jack McCoy as Prospero.

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Sam Waterston, as Prospero, and Francesca Carpanini, as Miranda, in The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of The Tempest. (photo ©Joan Marcus, NY Daily News)

Let me digress here and say that I admire Sam Waterston’s work enormously. In Grace and Frankie, where his conflicted, ambivalent Saul is the soul of the ensemble, he is the reason I watched every episode despite the fact that the other cast members failed to convince me they were who or what they purported to be. I was enthralled by his work in The Killing Fields and always wanted more from him when I watched Law and Order. But when I traveled to New Haven to see Stoppard’s Travesties, which featured Waterston, I was sorely disappointed. Waterston’s mumbly, hesitant speech patterns didn’t capture the rhythm of Stoppard’s writing. The play was uneven, and the speeches tended to be long and ponderous, even for Stoppard, and Waterston was not nailing them. Spoken with aplomb, Stoppard’s speeches, even at their wordiest, are melodious and lyrical, downright Shakespearean. Waterston’s delivery made them seem clunky, pretentious, pseudo-intellectual. So why did I even bother to get tickets for a Shakespeare play in which he would play a character with some of the longest, most ponderous speeches in the canon?

Two reasons. Because I could. And because I should. Who would turn down an opportunity see a free production of one of Shakespeare’s best plays, directed by Michael Greif, a Tony winner, one of Broadway’s best directors? Who would not want to witness a spectacle produced by a Broadway-caliber production team? Well, I was wrong in thinking I did.

Mediocrity is, apparently, the measure of excellence in a Delacorte show.

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Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Trinculo in The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, now playing at the Delacorte Theater (photo © Sara Krulwich, NY Times)

The highlight of the evening at my Delacorte was Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s Trinculo scene opposite Danny Mastrogorgio as Stephano and Louis Cancelmi as Caliban. Ferguson was good. He played Trinculo exactly as he plays his character on Modern Family, vascillating between over-the-top-reactions to things and understated asides. Stephano was okay. At least he was almost understandable. But Caliban seemed confused by the character he was playing, could not choose which of several accents to rely on, had no inkling as to how his body should move, and it was nearly impossible to catch his words, which were not falling trippingly from his tongue. The scene is pure Commedia fun as written; there is little any production could do to ruin it, but if the words were more critical, even that scene would have been lost.

No one in the cast, with the exception of Cotter Smith in the part of Prospero’s brother Antonio, was able to speak the speech. Waterston spoke as though he had pebbles on his tongue, and half his mouth was sewn together. Ariel might have been articulating just fine, but since he was whispering much of the time, nothing was reaching my ears. Miranda shouted everything. There were no nuances of emotions from her, just ebullient shouting to accompany her juvenile physicality. She seemed more like an over-excited six-year-old than a young woman encountering sexual awakening, and watching her I was reminded of a classmate of my daughter’s in her performing arts magnet high school, who had been Annie on Broadway and played every part, even scenes of quiet contemplation, with the same musical comedy hugeness.  As a high school theater director, I held my neophyte teenage actors in our several productions of plays by the Bard to a far higher standard than any of these credentialed professionals seemed to reach for.

It is worthless to go on about the acting. It was just the tip of the iceberg. The opening scene, the tempest itself, was lovely. I am a great fan of theatrical minimalism, of letting the actors carry the “sell” of a set, and in the opening, it all worked well. But as soon as the initial storm died, so did the success of the staging, the appropriateness of the design, the creation of the world. There was nothing to make me believe that I was encountering characters cast adrift on a seemingly hostile, enchanted island; they were simply pretenders stomping through roles on a stagnant playground in the center of a stage at the Delacorte Theatre.

Given how lacking I found the show, I can’t help wondering why I am already planning to seek tickets to Cymbelline, a play that is rarely done well?   The answer is plain, really. Because I’m New Yorker. It’s my patriotic duty.

 

 

Bob Ziering: Portrait of the Artist as an Old(er) Man (republished by permission of Catch & Release, The Columbia Journal Online)

Bob P'town “There aren’t a lot of restaurants like this one left in town,” Bob Ziering says, leaning over his lunch.   A glint appears in his eye as he quips in a spot-on Eastern European/Yiddish accent, “So, you think maybe we gonna eat?”  Of course I laugh.  This is how Bobby dispels his basic disdain for talking about himself, and I have asked him some very personal questions about his life and his art.  Whenever he wants to deflect his reluctance to talk, he slips into one of a hundred accents. He has chosen to meet in the Piccolo Café, an intimate little Italian restaurant on the upper west side, where Bobby has lived since the early ‘60’s.  Like Bobby, who was born in 1932, the Piccolo, established in Italy in 1938, has at once an old school charm and a hip vivacity. Piccolo might look like a little, old café, but there’s a robust energy here, and it’s a good foil for Bobby, who looks like he might be getting on in years until he starts to talk – or sing or paint – and you realize he’s younger than any of the hip upper west siders who frequent the Piccolo. I met Bob not long after he moved to this community.  He was, in those days, as he remains today in a more mature way, remarkably handsome, extraordinarily entertaining, unerringly funny. My Uncle Fred, a loud, opinionated Genovese, introduced us at one of the weekly open houses he and my aunt hosted, where copious amounts of delectable food preceded equal servings of delicious music played live or selected from his extensive record collection.  Fred had met Bob through a gay friend, and he loved to point out to us that while he was definitely not attracted to men, if he were, Bobby would be the only man he could ever love. Even then, I understood why. According to Uncle Fred, Bobby sang like Caruso or Bjørling, painted like Rembrandt or Caravaggio and did imitations like Rich Little.  Well, in those days they were imitations like Rich Little; today he does imitations more like a geriatric Jimmy Fallon. In any case, Uncle Fred knew whereof he spoke. “He’s a true Renaissance Man,” Fred would declare in a rasping voice that no one could mimic as well as Bob Ziering.  “A monster talent.” “I’m 80 years old,” Bobby says now.  “I’ve had a great career as an illustrator, I’ve traveled and sung in some wonderful operas.  But no one knows who I really am.  I am working to re-invent myself, and I want to be noticed. I’m still working, still creating, and you’re never too old be discovered.  I just want to be seen!” In truth, Bob has been noticed.  Is still being noticed.  He had a long and storied career as an illustrator, his works featured in advertisements, on book jackets, on posters at the Metropolitan Opera, in The New York Times, all over the place.  And all the while he was working – freelancing –he took time to represent other artists, to study music and voice and sing in the (now defunct) Amato Opera Company, among others. Along the way, he found time to establish himself as a collector: Bob Ziering owns an impressive array of African tribal art, Enrico Caruso memorabilia, classical opera recordings.  Just as impressive is that as busy as Bobby has been, he has never been too busy for friendship, and he has managed to create lifelong friendships that attest to the depth of the man’s humanness.  Ziering is a man who simply commands attention and is anything but obscure. It is true that he has not been very masterful at self-promotion.   “I want to be reborn, “ he says with a laugh; “but I am easily distracted by my many fascinating projects.” The Kiss This is a man who, above all else, communes with the world through his work, and his work is his first love.  He has, in recent years, produced a major body of work, and the subjects are as diverse as the wonders that stimulate Ziering’s imagination. Nowadays, Bob’s work is colorful, expansive; it succeeds the elegantly drawn illustrations that provided Bob with a comfortable income for many years.  At their best,  the illustrations are tributes to Ziering’s profound observations, his remarkable insights, his ability to capture the essence of an idea or a character in the simple but dynamic assembly of lines drawn with pen and ink, and they are reminders of his salient influencers, the likes of Rembrandt van Rijn, Francis Bacon, J.M.W.Turner.  Ziering’s illustrations caught figures in motion and projected whole stories in single images.  http://www.illustrationsource.com/stock/artist/bob-ziering// Bed But the newer work, the work of the past twenty years since he left illustrating, comprise the body of achievement Bob is proudest of.   In the new art, he is able to explore his emotions – universal human emotions – by telling visual tales, which he finds in his fellow humans, in animals, in burned piers and discarded chairs alike. “This woik you should see, dahling,” he whispers slyly, channeling his inner yenta.  “The woik everyone should see.” Silverback Ziering is a serious artist, interested in very serious subjects.  In the 1990’s, during a time of great personal loss, Bob was drawn to the plight of the Mountain Gorilla.  He became obsessed with the idea that mankind would soon render these magnificent beasts extinct. My Future Is In Your Hands In an interview with Nicholas Polities, of Print Magazine, Ziering explained, “The deep feeling of hurt I experienced seemed to fire my passion for expressing loss in terms of the species. . . . Without losing focus on the plight of the gorillas, I was also using it as a metaphor for universal themes of loss, cruelty, inhumanity, and death.”  He spent fifteen years researching, examining, compiling samples from gorilla life, from the foods they ingested and the environments they inhabited to the layering of their skin and the color of their eyes.  He worked to depict them as the complex organisms they are, to dispel the stereotype of the angry, beastly gorilla loner and to show what gentle, social animals they really are.  But he did not flinch from also honestly illustrating moments of aggression and retaliation. Reaching The series is a remarkable body of work and had exhibitions at the Marywood University Art Gallery in Scranton, PA, at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and at the Central Park Zoo in New York City.  As the Marywood catalog described, the “skillfully rendered images of the majestic and imperiled Mountain Gorilla underscore their endangerment. . . . The artwork is descriptive, suggestive and bold. . .showing subjects that have a poignant familiarity.” So Close The waiter in the Piccolo brings us our soy caffe ‘l ‘attes, and Bob cannot resist the urge to slip back into his accented alter ego.  “You gonna write about my sexy stuff?”  I laugh.  Discussion of some of his newer work still make him the slightest bit uncomfortable. As a child of the pre-boomer generation, Bob Ziering has came late to an acceptance of himself as a sexual being, and he had to learn to accept himself as a gay man, a journey he has given beautifully textured life in his artistically erotic chalk drawings of people on the verge of lovemaking, figures in intimate repose, etc., which have been frequently exhibited by the Leslie Lohman Gallery; three pages Ziering’s work are permanently on display on their website (http://www.leslielohman.org/).   The work is deeply affecting, but it never verges on pornography.   Rather, in the tradition of the great masters, Bob conveys a life seething with sensual stimulation that insinuates sexuality and tantalizes without exploitive titillation. Bob draws his face into a kind of exaggerated squint.  “You look too serious.  Vot’s so serious? “  I tell him that I am just concentrating on hearing the details, understanding how he himself perceives his work, and I am probably responding to the expression on his own face.  “Ya,” he quips now in a mock Dutch accent.  “The face tells all.” It was Rembrandt’s face that inspired another recent series.  Fascinated by the variety of countenances, the unabashed aging in Rembrandt’s self-portraits, Ziering created a series called Rembrandt’s Face, his own interpretations of the artist’s interpretations of self.  It’s a startlingly revealing series, one that illuminates both Bob and his subject in surprising ways.  When I spoke earlier to Miki Marcu, an old friend of Ziering’s, about his work, and she chose the Rembrandt series as one she especially adored. “He decided on REMBRANDT?” She exclaimed.  “What a jump.  What a facility he has as an artist.” Rembrandt Not content to express himself through the animate realm, Bob has looked to what other artists would call still life for two other major series: The Burnt Pier, which studies the thrumming vitality of an abandoned pier on the Hudson near Bob’s UWS home, and the Blue Chair, in which a discarded wicker-back chair veritably dances, reverberating with color and motion. Burning Pier Bob lapses into seriousness when he talks about the medium in which he works.  “I think the biggest thing I have done as an artist since I left the illustration racket is that I am working in color.  I deliberately sought to transition into color, but I wasn’t comfortable working with a paintbrush.   Then Alan gave me a set of pastels one year, and I have found that they have freed all my spirits, which gave me the momentum I needed to really immerse myself into the life of my art. “ Pink Mist Alan is Alan Lawson, a fellow artist, who has been with Ziering in a steadfast, ever-evolving friendship for thirty-three years.  “Early on, he showed me a copy of Vermeer’s Lady with the Red Hat he had done in pastels, and it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen . . . .  He had done it when he was still a kid of maybe 17 . . . . He had not touched pastels since then.  I thought to myself that this was the medium that could bridge his transition from being a draw-er to becoming a painter.  So for Christmas one year I gave him a box of pastels, and what he can do with those pastels is just beyond description.  He finds layers of color, dynamism of scenes that I’ve rarely seen done in any medium.” Sitting in the restaurant, Bob sighs.  “I expected to do so much with that work.” “You’re still working,” I protest. “But nothing has changed.  The gorilla  — along with so many animals! — grows closer to extinction every day, and . . . .” His voice trails off, and he sighs,  “There is so much more to do.  I may do things a little more slowly than I used to, but I can still do so much!” Bob at Twighlight Everyone who knows Bob says it is, above all, passion that defines the man, and it is passion that drives the artist, keeps him young. Lawson, a painter and scenic charge for both film and theater, came to NY to attend school in 1979 and took a job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he met Ziering in 1981.  He says that it’s always been hard to keep up with the older man.  “When I met him, I was just in my second year at Pratt, and here he was this seasoned native New Yorker, so knowledgeable, so passionate.  He was passionate about everything.   Talk to him about his tribal art collection, his record collection, his own work, and so many things . . . things that I had never heard of.   He introduced me to so much. . . . .And I have to say, his passion today is the same as it was thirty-three years ago.   His passions run very deep, they’re very strong, and he has an amazing vitality.  Boundless.” Ziering credits his happy Brooklyn childhood for his zest for life. Lapsing into Yiddish tones again, he tells me he was an aesthetically astute child, who loved the Friday night family food extravaganzas at his father’s parents’ home, in the company of all his exuberantly musical and artistic relatives, the first generation born in New York City, USA.   He had a great voice, and he loved to sing, but even then he knew he would be a visual artist.  “My mother told me she believed I was already drawing in the womb, that she felt movement that was more akin to the scratching of a pen than the kicking most babies inflict on their mothers.”    She felt compelled from the very start to introduce him to the cornucopia of visual art available to anyone growing up in Brooklyn, and he cherished the time he spent with her visiting museums and galleries, his favorite destinations. “You’d think I’d wanna go to Ebbets Field or play stick ball,” Ziering laughs. “I was a lousy baseball player . . . but wonderful gallery goer, at a very early age!”  His parents and his friends alike admired his talent, and he was fueled by their respect.  Yet his love for the work was always his strongest motivating force.  “I couldn’t wait,” he says; “to get to my studio in the finished basement, back to my drawing and painting.” “I enjoyed being with the other kids, but I loved being with adults, and I loved to show off.  The other kids didn’t seem to mind.  They knew I would play for a finite amount of time, and then I would retreat to my work.” Joyce Hellman, a classmate of Bob’s in the High School of Music and Art, Class of 1950, remembers Bob as a warm, loving, gifted but extraordinarily disciplined teenager.  “I was  music major, so we didn’t become close, “ she says, “Till years and years after graduation, after our 35th reunion, but everyone knew who Bob was.  We knew he could sing – oh, how he could sing – and we knew he could dance, but we also knew he loved to work.  Couldn’t seem to get enough of it.” Lawson concurs.  “Bob’s one true love is his art.  He has the good fortune of having his studio right next to his bedroom, so he can get up in the morning and be right at the heart of where he needs to be to do his work.   But you know, that takes a lot of discipline.  I’ve had it both ways, had a studio in my home and a studio away, and each presents a different scenario.  I mean, to get up every day and to face first thing what you did the day before can be challenging.  You’re with it 24/7.   Then too, it can be too easy.  Sometimes people need the effort of getting to somewhere to make them work.  That’s not Bob.  He’s an incredibly disciplined person.“ I ask Bob if he thinks he has this drive, the kind that sets the artist apart from the dabbler.   “Yes,” he asserts.   “First thing, every day, I go for a little walk, get my coffee and a croissant, and then, after I go to the JCC to swim or lift weights, I return and work till the light dims in my studio.  Then it’s music and friends and books and all the wonderful things there are to experience.  But first there’s the art. ” Face Me Miki Marcu, who met him when she was the director of the Merton D. Simpson Gallery of African Art in Chelsea, where Bob was a client, says that it’s exactly his relationship to his work what makes Bob Ziering different even from the other artists she has known.  “He’s a funny man. . . a very loving friend, has seen me through some truly tough times,  and he loves all kinds of music and art.  But I always know that he is committed entirely to his art.” “Working every day is how Bob stays balanced on the beam,” says Lawson.  “Life can be a narrow path, and you can find yourself losing your footing.  Having that discipline, that drive to stand in front of that board is what keeps him balanced.. . . . “  Lawson tells me that Bob’s favorite work shirt is one he bought at the Dia  Art Foundation, in Beacon, NY, designed by Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010), a sculptor whose work Bob greatly admires.  The t-shirt proclaims, “Art is a guarantee of sanity.”  “I think he wears that,” Lawson goes on, “because  it speaks so profoundly to the truth of his own life.” In A Child's Garden And Sky Bob’s studio was probably the master bedroom of his spacious, rent-controlled apartment, and he is an eager host who never tires of showing off his works in progress that hang on his work board or his past oeuvres, stashed neatly in his art drawers.   On shelves, in albums and books, he keeps more of his work, carefully cataloged, meticulously arranged so he can easily find anything he wants to share.  The newest series is startling.  Youthful exuberance, naiveté, shyness captured in portraits of several models, most notably  “K” the personal trainer at his gym, a kind of surrogate for the young man Ziering was himself at 23. (K) 1 The series is called Aloneness, and through the work, Bob explores the dimensions of being alone.  “Understand, I am not talking about loneliness.” Bob says as he shows me a particularly engaging picture – the young man, alone, covering his face with his hands, posing but not comfortable posing, knowing he is semi-nude and being watched.    “It’s very different.  Sometimes it’s thrust upon us, but more often we choose it.”  This is his most personal series to date. (K) 2 By his own accounting, Bob’s best companion is his art, but he says he craves human relationships.  So his relationship to aloneness is dynamic, morphing as he discovers new dimensions in himself and in his environment.  He spends most of his time away from human contact, rubbing chalk on a paper hung on his board, drawing a story he is compelled to tell.  He works from photographs he takes of his subjects and his models, and he breathes his own life into them, interpreting their skin, their expressions, their breath.   “Listen,” says Lawson, “Bob and I have been together for a very long time, and we have been through every kind of relationship experience two people can have.  I know him well, and I wouldn’t say he’s exactly a loner.  He can have periods of isolation, but I can’t say I have ever known him to be lonely, and he seeks others out.  He lives alone, is self-sufficient . . . It’s very true that he stands alone in his studio when he is working, but his dialogue with his subjects is so strong that one can imagine him having a conversation  with the image, whether it’s of beautiful bodies in bed or a gorilla or a chair or an aging Rembrandt or even a burnt pier being washed over by the incessant sea.  And that’s what makes the work so resonant.  You feel the dialogue between the artist and the subject.” Bob at Twilight II In Ziering’s life, Lawson reminds me, he has had three very deep, very long-term relationships.  His communion with Alan, which began and remained for many years a romantic partnership, has transcended the many ways both their lives have changed. In the new series, relationships are at the core of the vivacity that defines them.  There is distinct dialogue in every piece Ziering creates, and it is clear and ambient.  The work is exuberant, joyful, celebrating the human just being.  The joy the artist clearly derives from the engagement points to a very important difference between aloneness and loneliness.  As Alan Lawson explains, “People who have been alone for a long time and feel lonely reach a certain level of bitterness.  That’s not Bob.  All you have to do is be with Bob, walk out the door with him, see him looking with interest at EVERYthing, and you realize he is not that kind of a person.  His receptors are always up, and he allows the world in.  With open arms.” I can see that here in Piccolo Café, where the waiters treat him like a beloved brother, and where he nestles comfortably into his familiar seat at a booth in the back of the restaurant.  “I want to be known, to be loved, but mostly I want to keep on working!” Which he will undoubtedly do for years to come, descended as he is from a long line of nonagenarians.  Like my Uncle Fred, his fans adore him, and they hope his best work is yet to be “discovered.” “He’s brilliant,” effuses Miki Marcu.  “A truly modern Renaissance man.” Burning Piervisit  www.bobziering.com