Notes From A Temporary Curmudgeon – Day 4

4. Mary Poppins Returns 

My daughter and I love Mary Poppins, and we share a high regard for Emily Blunt and Lin-Manual Miranda. How could we resist trekking to the theater the day the new film opened in Bangkok?

How could we know that the best part of the film was that which followed the previews but preceded the feature. The part where we stood at attention to show our abject admiration for the King of Thailand, to watch a short documentary covering his life story and listened respectfully to the rousing national anthem? After that, the experience was generally tedious and vacuous. A complete disappointment.

 Nothing was fresh except Blunt’s performance. Miranda’s expression never changed from beginning to end of the film, and his songs and scenes were sappy, over-acted, void of either humor or interest. Fortunately for us, some of the cartoons transfixed my grandson for a little while, and he was happy to eat popcorn and sit quietly. But before long, we had to pull out his little iPad so that he could return to the thrall (for the 90th or so time) of the endlessly repetitive episodes of Paw Patrol we had previously downloaded. I was relieved to have the Paw Patrol distraction myself. Rob Marshall’s film is a kettle of tasteless, rubbery squid. Not exactly delicious fare for a diehard vegan.

I know I’m not “normal.” I’m back to where I am with Mrs. Maisel. Everyone else loves the achievement. I feel like that lone little boy at the storybook parade shouting, “But the emperor is naked . . . .” At least with Mary Poppins, I am not alone. My daughter shared the displeasure.

This was especially upsetting for me. I am an inveterate Poppins fan. I began reading the books to myself before I was 5, and I read them to my many siblings in the intervening years before I grew up and shared them with my own progeny. I saw the trailer for Mary Poppins Returns, and I could not wait to see the whole movie – it looked like it might have something in common with the original P.L. Travers’ stories on which it was based.

Alas, I was wrong. This so-called adaptation bore almost no resemblance to the material co-writers David Magee and Rob Marshall theoretically translated for the screen.

Magee and Marshall eliminated everything Travers wrote. Except the title character, who is, I should add, played superbly by Emily Blunt. Were that she had had a script worthy of her talent.

To be fair, they did insert Blunt’s Poppins into momentary glimpses of the various sequels P.L.Travers actually wrote. For the most part, however, the writers have created an entirely new set of characters that they have stuffed into a story that is no more than a very distant cousin of the fantastical tales Travers told about her mesmerizing British nanny.

I have read that the writers at Disney found the original material too dark. Ironic that.

There must be a Disney trope that demands that, in order to be significant, a film for children must begin with youngsters dealing with the tragic and sudden loss of their mothers. This seems to constitute a leit-motif for young audiences. I’m confused. What’s darker than the premise that three children under 11 have had to grow up all too quickly in the wake of their mother’s horrific, untimely death?

The “too-dark” material of the P.L. Travers books features no dead mothers. In Travers’ Mary Poppins Comes Back or Mary Poppins Opens The Door, all the Banks family members are very much alive. Including the parents who first endure and then engage Mary Poppins over and over again. Jane has not grown up to defy her class station and take up the sword of socialism as is her Emily Mortimer film shade, and Michael Banks is not the widower portrayed by Ben Whishaw.

Both siblings remain children through every one of the Poppins books. Two of five very realistic children, in fact. Their fantasies are not always sweetness and light, but they are always wildly creative. The children wander in and out of conundrums and dilemmas they encounter in their dream worlds, but they never fail to come home to their ever-loving if somewhat misguided parents. Two of them.

Conversations with sea slugs and other unlikely animal heroes, who figure adorably and prominently in the books, are apparently too disturbing for a children’s film. By contrast, the threat of homelessness is clearly unthreatening enough an adventure for modern children. The original Travers material never once suggests, as the film insists, that the house the family lives in is in jeopardy. Mary Poppins’ role as savior is to liberate the children from the ignominy of unmannerly behavior. She protects them from the failure to be imaginative. She struggles against their individual and collective loss of innocence. She never has to fight thwart the bank manager’s evil intentions.

Obviously, Travers wrote far too darkly for a children’s musical.

On the other hand, a dance sequence populated by multitudinous men cavorting with a single female becomes, in the world of Disney, no more than a tasteful romp. Dozens of dirty chimney sweeps in step with one young Poppins and a leering Miranda felt creepy to me. Not one female dancer in the crowd. I guess kids must accept that women can never be cast as chimney sweeps (we certainly can’t ask women to play males), especially not in the 1950s version of the 1890s that’s been put on this screen. It just wouldn’t be right.

An aside here . . . did the Script supervisor not notice that the skyline shots were far too modern for the theoretical setting?

In both Mary Poppins Comes Back and Mary Poppins Opens the Door, Travers takes the children to places where they are forced to learn about their responsibilities to self and country, to parents and each other. Many of the characters are loony. But there is no person or situation nearly as sinister as any of those Marshall interjects into his version.

In the book, for example, Mrs. Turvy, played in the film by Meryl Streep, is madly contrary. She has to be. She is happily married to Mr. Topsy. The concept of a husband-wife partnership in comic turmoil must have been a controversial concept for Marshall and his merry men. Mr. Topsy has been eliminated from the film. The magical couple that spends most of their episode laughing at the absurdity of it all have been replaced by the innocuous cardboard figure allotted to Ms. Streep. Turvy without Topsy floats obnoxiously in a tone-deaf, flat-bottomed skiff of a song. Oh well, at least there’s a happy message — Meryl Streep can still do accents.

My favorite of the Travers sequels was Mary Poppins Comes Back. Poppins returns just when Jane and Michael appear to be turning into impossible children. They won’t bathe properly, won’t sit at the table long enough to finish eating, won’t speak respectfully to their parents. The Banks family has expanded to include twins Jon and Barbara, who are just about to age out of infancy and become toddlers.

Another aside here: Unfortunately, Marshall wrote Jon and Barbara out of the equation entirely, along with Annabel, the youngest child, who appears somewhat later. I understand compressing the three characters into one. Composite characters are a great way to avoid clutter. But did they have to dump three children and add a Georgie? Would a spirited little girl child have been less viable an idea than this vapidly incorrigible Georgie Disney has invented here?

Anyway, in Mary Poppins Comes Back, the twins’ moment of maturity is a poignant one. Their friend the local starling, who lives on the Banks’ second story ledge, has been coming daily to converse at length with the twins, who have always been fluent in starling. Then one day he arrives and asks, as he does every day, for a bit of biscuit. Neither twin responds. Neither twin is pleased to see him. Neither twin has anything to say. Poppins explains to the frustrated starling that human children lose their ability to talk to animals when they are no longer infants, no longer connected to their primitive past.

Yup that’s just the kind of scary reality that could keep your preschoolers up at night. Good thing this film has protected us by providing the un-terrifying mediocrity of a meaningless script peopled by vacuous characters performing derivative musical numbers.

Thank goodness my grandkids are safe. 

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Notes from the Temporary Curmudgeon – Day 2

2.The Great Let-Down – The Amazing Mrs. Maisel!!  

Even to those of us who subscribe to the various entertainment portals, there is a distinct limit on what is available for consumption overseas. Netflix is quite generous, offering a wide range of choices, but I had watched all I cared to see on the interminable flights over. Which I thought was okay as I could not wait to binge on The Amazing Mrs. Maisel. But ten minutes into the first episode, I was already fed up with this season’s offering.

Sorry, my many friends and family who love this show. I’m no longer with you!

The show seems to have diminished to a series of one-liners delivered by hollow caricatures posing as characters, every one of which is a solipsist with no genuine concern for anyone else. The writers resort to easy, improbable resolutions for every dilemma, and they vacillate between including awareness of the title character’s children and forgetting they exist. No kidding – I was screaming for a Script Supervisor watching the second episode, when the baby was left in the car for hours, and no one even remembered she was there till nearly the next day.

Clearly, the writers have not studied Chekov’s rules for writers of scenes and short stories. There are dozens of interludes, characters, props that exist with no tie to anything essential. And there are far too many props, characters, and interludes that portend surprise and fail to deliver. The Jewish characters are played by fakers, who have no clue what it means to be Jewish, and the script relies on Clichés and stereotypes to tell their ridiculous tales.

Which brings my rant to something more widespread than simply a problem in an Amazon original series.

When will Hollywood get it that it’s okay for Jews to play Jews?

Yellow facing has ended. Asians are hired to play screen versions of themselves. Hollywood and the outlying broadcast gods make at least a modicum of effort to cast Native Americans (including native South and Central Americans) in native roles, to allow South Asians to play Indian and Pakistani characters, etc. Yet gentiles still play Jews pretending to be Jewish. Pretending. Not acting.

This is all part of a long-standing tradition with Jewish characters in film and television. Jews are rarely played as deeply nuanced, real-life people. Instead, they persist as cardboard cutouts. Cartoons. Intensely, grotesquely broad-stroked, either ultra-religious, ultra evil, or ultra ridiculous. In this series, we are totally, ridiculously evil and pseudo-religious.

We all laughed back in 1960 when Otto Preminger cast Sal Mineo as Dov Landau, whom Leon Uris wrote as a scrawny, malnourished concentration camp inmate, who barely survived by learning the art of counterfeiting. Preminger didn’t trust the author’s character and changed him to a swarthy, hale and hearty explosives expert. Okay, it was the ‘60s. And Preminger was making a statement.

A box-office statement enhanced by his casting the gorgeously gentile Paul Newman as Ari Ben Canaan. At the time few knew that, as Adam Sandler would attest, Newman was half-a-Jew.

Jews were used to being played by Italians and WASPS. Gregory Peck was terrific in Gentleman’s Agreement, but he sure wasn’t believably Jewish. It was okay. We all understand that films were, as they still are, driven by their potential ticket sales. In the 1960s the Jewish actors with the mojo to put bums in seats were scarce at most.

The actors were there in Hollywood. Working undercover. Because once upon a time in the West being Jewish – like being gay or Lena Horn black, etc. – out in the open, was to concede to a career of being consigned to playing Native Americans and Asians and all those “lesser” ethnicities who couldn’t get SAG cards.

Today there are many Jewish people out there in the entertainment world. They are out in the open. And as popular as any of the goyim. Which renders ridiculous that British gentile Clair Foy should be cast as Brooklyn-bred, defiantly Jewish Ruth Bader Ginsberg (On the Basis of Sex). The days when one would cast Sir Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi are thankfully behind us. Clair Foy was a remarkable Queen of England, but as a Jewish intellectual, she’s a silly cartoon.

I guess I’d be less insulted if I thought Rachel Brosnahan, Tony Shalhoub, and Marin Hinkle deserved all the accolades they’re getting. All three are wonderful actors – I am a particular fan of Tony Shalhoub. But they have all swerved way out of their lanes. Their accents are as flat as their affect. None of them made me laugh, despite being in constant one-liner delivery mode. They all persist in imitating characters for whom they lack empathy. There are so many terrific Jewish actors out there. Why was none of them cast?

It would have be so nice to have our people look like real people for a change.

A Note from the Writing Teacher. . .

To my students, who are struggling with personal essays. . .

So, for me, the pleasure in writing comes from the careful choreography of words and phrases, the shaping of a dance that is the process of making a story. No piece is ever entirely free of ways to make it better, but through thoughtful revision, any writing can be rendered fit to perform.

I’ve been writing the same story for over two years. There have been many versions, some comprising around 3,000 words, one over 10,000. I struggle. How do I tell this story most effectively? How many substories– digressions — do I allow into the narrative? That’s the challenge. That’s the dance.

Is this dance a tango, a foxtrot? Could it be a three-act ballet?

Here’s the story. It’s about my mother. Specifically about my mother and her relationship to her cello. When she and her family were forced to leave Europe and leave behind everything and everyone they loved, she was told she could take only one thing with her. She chose, of all things, her cello. Imagine fleeing across Europe, being stopped at every border by guards who would kill you with little provocation, dragging a cumbersome cello. That cello must have symbolized the whole world she was abandoning. More than that. It contained her sister’s soul – her near-twin sister, her closest ally and dearest companion, who had died a few years earlier. That cello conveyed the music her own mother had lost the ability to sing.

I knew that instrument. I was an only child for nearly four years, and every night she would play as I lay awake wrestling my own fears trying to sleep. I had absorbed from her a sense of foreboding, a fear of dangers I could only intuit. Dangers I suspected she escaped but didn’t know how to name. She could not speak them. But in the dulcet voice of the cello, all her losses, all her pain, seemed to grow tolerable. I could hear her face relax, her smile broaden. All those memories of love and sorrow seemed to have found a place in her heart where she could love them without malice.

My father broke the cello. He didn’t mean to, but he ruined it. How does he fit into this tale? If I tell the whole tale, it becomes sadder.

Shall I write about the flight from Europe and the way the cello facilitated her adjustment to America? Do I write about the way the cello soothed our collective lives? Or do I write about my parents’ marriage and how the death of the cello killed it? That’s all contained within the scope of this project. Each iteration has more or less of every aspect. And then some.

Like the way I tried to emulate and heal that woman. How I wanted her to love me as much as she loved that cello. How much of that should I keep in . . . or edit out?

I wrestle with this the way you wrestle with perfecting your personal essays. You want to tell a story. But you are not sure which story will it be. How do you narrow it down?

A journal helps. You can make notes, write passages, tinker with time and place. Which story can you tell most openly, holding the least of your emotion back? Into which one do you feel most comfortable immersing yourself? Follow that one. . . even if it leads you into steps you never expected to learn. In the end, choose the story that chooses you. It will. At some point, while you’re searching for the right words, hoping for the best inspiration, it will tap you on the shoulder and ask you for your hand.

And that’s when the dance will begin in earnest.

 

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.

 

 

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