Archive for November, 2014

Cooper’s London

November 25, 2014





Backlist: Get Ready to Read!

The Pushkin Press in London has been doing the English-speaking world a fine service by bringing the works of Stefan Zweig back from their underserved limbo. Anthea Bell has been doing new translations of the fictions, impressive in their accessibility and accuracy of tone, anthea belland Pushkin has also been re-publishing the non-fiction in the original 1920s and 1930s translations by Eden and Cedar Paul. I remember about a dozen volumes of Zweig in English on my mother’s bookshelves when I was a kid (my grandmother had them in the original German). She was always telling me that he was one author I shouldn’t miss.

When I was growing up it was still accepted that Zweig was one of the most important modern German writers, along with Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Hugo von Hoffmansthal, Franz Werfel, and other greats of that era; during the period before WWII Zweig was, for a time, the best-selling writer in the Western World. His biographies of Marie Antoinette, Mary Stuart, Magellan and Casanova, among others, were iconic. If you wanted to be “cultured”, you had to know your Zweig. His novel Beware of Pity has to be one of the most astute and poignant psychological studies ever written as well as a gripping portrait of the final years of the Austrian Empire. It is, like all his fiction, one of those great and un-put-down-able reads. Zweig’s novellas and short stories are as unique and special as Chekhov’s or Katherine Mansfield’s, and as important as James Joyce’s Dubliners in their innovations and experiments-–or as unique as Alice Munro’s tales. At least one, Letter from an Unkown Woman, was the inspiration for a classic film of the same title by Max Ophuls in 1947. These new Pushkin publications have even inspired filmmaker Wes Anderson, or so he claims, to create The Grand Budapest Hotel, whose characters are loosely based upon and inspired by Zweig and his gallery of books.

The author’s own story is ultimately very sad. Convinced that his world had been blown away forever by the Nazis and fearful that it would never recover, zweig2Zweig ended up committing suicide with his young wife in Brazil after sending his memoirs, The World of Yesterday, to his publisher in Sweden; it was forbidden to publish him anywhere occupied by Germany (he had Jewish ancestry and was therefore an examplar of entartete or degenerate art. And everywhere that Zweig was known and loved or had friends and connections was occupied by Germany. A recent and very successful French novel, The Last Days by Laurent Seksik, imagines Zweig’s final months in Brazil and his suicide and was also recently published in English by the Pushkin Press.

If you haven’t already discovered Zweig, then perhaps the best place to start is his novel Beware of Pity and his memoir, The World of Yesterday. Both are brilliantly evocative of the final years of the Hapsburgs and just beyond and help you understand both their glamour and their crushing conventions. I would also acquire his Collected Short Stories, (relatively recently published) and perhaps one of the many famous biographies. He also wrote some fascinating essays; there is a collection of sketches of great historical moments called Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures, full of surprising information and brilliantly constructed sketches with the impact of tiny fables.

Novelist, playwright, journalist, biographer and historian, Zweig was wrong about one thing–his kind of culture has not perished from the earth. And with Pushkin’s new translations and publications in English, there’s a good chance for even more of a revival.
Recommended Stefan Zweig Starter Pack: The World of Yesterday; Beware of Pity; Collected Short Stories; Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures; Marie Antoinette; Magellan

Then you can move on to: The Post Office Girl, Journey into the Past, Casanova, Tolstoy, The Struggle with the Daemon…and more! He was incredibly prolific. But If you have holiday reading plans beyond everything by Zweig, here are some favourites on my bedroom table for Book-at-Bedtime reading.

Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 (Victoria Wilson)

stanwyck1One of the most thoroughly researched, best-written and consistently fascinating biographies of a Hollywood star ever published. It’s also nearly a thousand pages long and covers, so far, only about half the life. But, though it’s neither scurrilous nor gossipy–all the details are clearly supported by meticulous research–it feels much truer and more concise than it looks.

Victoria Wilson clearly adored Stanwyck both as an actress and as a person, and her enthusiasm and admiration shine through. She gives us a movie-by-movie analysis of Stanwyck’s considerable body of work as well as all the salient facts of her life while she was working on each film. And more! Because every time Stanwyck meets with a new director or writer or actor, Wilson gives us essential context.

As the political background to Stanwyck’s life changes—from World War I, the flapper era, the crash of 1929, Roosevelt’s presidency, to the rise of the totalitarian regimes in Europe–it’s clear not only what was happening to Stanwyck, but to the world in which she was living. We watch her grow as a human being and as an actress, applaud her triumphs and feel sad about the failures and problems. Every character remains vivid, not least Stanwyck herself; her difficult childhood is a riveting starting point. You gain insights into her abusive marriage to Frank Fay and her powerful need to stick with it and stanwyck3make it work as long as she could bear it; you understand the nuances of her love for Robert Taylor who was, as she noted, more beautiful that she was.

The book is fascinating not just for Stanwyck’s story but also for the story of Broadway in the 20s. plus the emergence of the talkies and their growing sophistication and technique throughout the 30s. If you have any interest at all in this era, you’ll love this book for its generosity of spirit. It’s endlessly informative, surprising, and provocative. It makes you want to read biographies of Frank Capra, Robert Taylor, Mae Murray, John Ford, and many others. Best of all, it makes you think about and want to see (or see again) just about every movie it mentions, especially the ones with Barbara Stanwyck. This is a five-star book I can enthusiastically recommend to any film fan. Or, in fact, to anybody.

The Patriarch: The Remarkable Life and Turbulent Times of Joseph P. Kennedy (David Nasaw) 

Joseph P. Kennedy would be worth writing about even if he hadn’t been founder one of America’s most extraordinary political dynasties. He was a hugely successful banker during kennedy4World War I, the owner of a film studio and a major player in Hollywood in the 1920s; Ambassador to England at a crucial and troubled time in the 1930s and a huge influence on his sons John and Robert. His personal legacy was besmirched by scandal (read his erstwhile lover Gloria Swanson about him) and by his extremely authoritarian political stances. Yet he was also, finally, one of Roosevelt’s men.

In this substantial biography, Professor Nasaw – who had access to papers the family had never shown before– goes far to clarify Kennedy’s beliefs and behaviour and evoke strong understanding (if not exactly sympathy) for him. Kennedy’s stand in favour of co-operation with Hitler’s Germany, for instance, is made more explicable. He was extremely able, and a central figure in much that is important in twentieth century history and, indeed, influential to this day. So the book is a kind of “must-read” for anyone interested in the personalities of that period. Though exhaustive, the book is never exhausting,
but well-written and almost impossible to put down. I didn’t like Joseph Patrick President Roosevelt Delivering Radio AddressKennedy any better for knowing more about just why he was anti-Semitic or how helpful he was at times to Roosevelt. Still, this is definitely a good account of the first two-thirds of the twentieth century from a conservative, ambitious right-wing point of view. But I find I liked and respected the Roosevelts a lot better. In fact, The Patriarch drove me straight back to Doris Kearns Goodwin and No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt–the Home Front in World War II.

More on Ms. Goodwin in the next installment.

Apollo’s Girl

November 22, 2014

apollo and lyre



Word Count: R.I.P.

A few years back I had to write an article no longer than 1,000 words about Mike Nichols. There would be lots to absorb.  At the Lincoln Center library I asked for the Nichols’ clippings files and received three boxes bursting with newsprint and magazine pages. Most harked back to the time when 5,000-10,000-word profiles were assigned routinely, especially for celebrity subjects. And besides-–he was a beguiling interview.

So I set to work, poring over the folders, xeroxing what was relevant. There was so much more than I needed, but it was fascinating stuff. I read on. All of it. When the library closed, I knew everything about Mike Nichols, from his birth in Berlin through his refugee’s voyage with a name tag pinned to his coat and only two nichols and maysentences of the language he would one day master: “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me.” Then, how he first made them laugh in Chicago with Elaine May. How he later had four hits running simultaneously on Broadway. How, after his Hollywood debut with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, he moved on to The Graduate and just kept going until there were over two dozen films with A-list royalty before he was done.

He could act, too: he was offered the part of Iago (to Richard Burton’s Othello), and Hamlet (for Tyrone Guthrie), but turned them down. Later his brief appearance in The Designated Mourner in London moved Newsweek to declare it “…a revelation in its unnerving mix of anger, despair, perverse wit and emotional force.” How he won a lot of awards and also made a lot of money. And how he met Diane Sawyer in an airport and married her (“…she had her own constituency and her own checkbook.”) It was a brilliant life, lived to the hilt by a man of huge and protean talents.nichols 2

But here’s the most amazing thing about it: in all of those hundreds of interviews and their thousands of words, except for the two sentences/eight words he spoke on his way to America (they alone appeared everywhere), Nichols never repeated himself; not a line, not a quote, not an anecdote. It was a stunning achievement and the first and last time I’ve researched anyone of whom it was true.

In the end, struggling with impossible choices to maintain the assigned wordage, I cut the sentences, figuring they’d already appeared everywhere, and too tired to realize that they’d appeared everywhere because they’d remained etched in Nichols’ heart since the day he stepped off the boat.

Promised approval of the final version, he wrote “It’s a lovely bio,” but requested firmly (and beguilingly) a single change: to include “I don’t speak English” and “Please don’t kiss me” in the first paragraph. Afterwards, I was told, he’d added, “Otherwise it seems to be fine. Very nice in fact.”

May his judgment be my epitaph.

Apollo’s Girl

November 20, 2014


apollo and lyre



Bigger Than Ever: Doc NYC at Five



If you have a festival and you want it to grow, you doc nyc 2014need a few basics: a list of sponsors with muscle, a dedicated team with vision, a multiplex, an interesting slate, seductive events, and location. Doc NYC has all of these; offering 92 features and 37 shorts, up from a total of 132 last year, plus a Doc-A-Thona didactic soup-to-nuts, beginning with Mapping Out Your Film: Story and Style, and ending a week later with the bottom line: Making a Living as a Documentary Filmmaker. This last may prove something of an oxymoron, but it’s an inspirational idea for attendees heading out into the dark and stormy night that is documentary film.

The Festival’s upbeat gala finale—The Yes Men are Revoltingtakes place tonight at the SVA Theatre (333 West 23rd Street) at 7:00 pm. The miracle of Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno is their ability to make you laugh at the brilliant stunts they dream up to protest issues like climate change. That is until you absorb the scale and implacability of their targets, ever-growing Goliaths to their yes menDavids. You have to see the opening to believe it, but its activist blobs wading knee-deep in the East River is a unique call to arms, impossible to top.

Along the way, we are treated to past capers, brainstorming sessions, consequences, and slow (and delicious) reveals of corporate and institutional stalwarts realizing they’ve been had. There seems to be no limit to the energy or inventiveness of Buchlbaum and Bonanno, although doubts and sorrows occasionally leaven their capers. My advice: follow their every move and find a way to support them. Then just dig deep, choose a project, and give til it hurts. (Director Laura Nix and the Yes Men in person to attend.)

What makes the festival notable is its focus on the genre (so often neglected or underserved in favor of narrative film) and its inclusiveness. The sheer number of its offerings guarantees that there will be works of interest to everyone.  There were many strands, much variety, and — a real Godsend — revivals of some recent citizenfour_posterhits from the Film Society of Lincoln Center (Citizen Four, arguably the most important documentary to surface this year), and Finding Vivian Maier (whose quirky mystery seems destined to be obscured by a subsequent legal battle with no end in sight, like a latter-day Bleak House). Both were part of the Short List section; likely Oscar nominees. Then there was Docs Redux, bringing ’em back alive from decades past: Steve James’ (director of this year’s searing Life Itself) 1993 multiple award-winner Hoop Dreams; David—from DA Pennebaker and William Ray (the very pinnacle of 1960s verite cool)—as well as Pennebaker and Hegedus’ much later Kings of Pastry (did you ever think you’d see strong men cry over the collapse of a sublime chocolate confection)? The capacity to bring back films, old and new, that demand repeat viewings and new viewers, is the real luxury of multiple screens, good selection committees, and long memories.

There were parallels among the features (coincidental or otherwise); overviews of an era from Ric Burns, and from Gracie Otto. The first, Enquiring Minds— a hard look at Generoso Pope, Jr., who purchased the National Enquirer in 1952 (allegedly with mob financing) and turned it from a sleepy  local gossip sheet into an increasingly lurid supermarket sensation beset by celebrity lawsuits; the second, The Last Impressario, featuring the elegant Michael White, besotted by dreams of producing only the best of the bests on Broadway, in the West End, and in Hollywood, drifting after a lifetime in the company of the stars he presented. 

Two radically different (but entertaining) films were screened that used the evolution of a group to represent changing times and more: George Hencken’s spandau balletSoul Boys of the Western World (the story of the rock group Spandau Ballet), and Tim K. Smith’s Sex and Broadcasting (a chronicle of WFMU, “the best—and perhaps weirdest—radio station in the tristate area, if not the country.”) Seeing both, you realized that every group, like every person, has a life cycle; from the enthusiasm and idealism of youth, to the growing exhaustion and disillusionment of middle age, and finally the resolution of life’s lessons in a variety of ways. For WFMU, the future is a big question mark, generated by a chronic and oppressive lack of funds. For Spandau Ballet, we are treated to a spectacular reunion concert (after decades of toxic estrangement) that ends with a socko performance at the Isle of Wight; the band’s members literally throw off the years and become luminous, visibly younger versions of themselves; something I haven’t seen since Christopher Gable (as Richard Strauss) ripped off the mask of old age while conducting Death and Transfigurationthe finale of Ken Russell’s Dance of the Seven Veils. It took your breath away both times.

Attention must be paid to Vessel (by Diana Whitten) a call to arms for women’s reproductive rights; its heroine (Dr. Rebecca gomperts
) founded Women on Waves to provide contraceptive and abortion services to women in need. The clinic operates around the world on a ship moored in international waters, to avoid harsh penalties in countries where there is no legal alternative to pregnancy, however dire its consequences. Gomperts is tireless, and unafraid, but the threats are many and lurid, and impossible to ignore.

scottAs in every festival, there was one real surprise—a quiet film that spoke to me with a cumulative strength that demanded recognition: Florence, Arizona, by Andrea B. Scott, its director, writer, and cinematographer. Florence is a one-industry town whose prison employs most residents, and whose inmates outnumber them two-to-one. Its arid streets and quirky small-town characters grow on you; a Native American barber; a bad-boy adolescent trying hard to improve; a former teacher and a deputy sheriff who oppose each other in an election for town mayor; no two stubborn peas in this sun-drenched pod are remotely alike.florence_sunset
Scott’s cinematography is glorious, her understanding of what makes Florence tick and her empathy for her subjects produces pure gold. She asks the right questions, then gets out of the way, letting people speak for themselves. It’s a gift that many filmmakers can learn from, and a film that perceptive viewers can take to heart.

DOC NYC will be back next year; with even more premieres, more sold-out screenings, and more films, great and modest, as expected and as surprising. Keep track of the news and stay on top of it. home base

Cooper’s London

November 16, 2014




Mourning Becomes Kristin

Back in July, in a rare moment of prescience, I urgently recommended that readers book in advance for Sophocles’ Electra, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, coming to the Old Vic in September. Specifically, I said I would go see Kristin Scott Thomas reading the proverbial phone book! No need to be careful what I wished for; I got my wish last month, and I’m a very lucky guy!

Using Frank McGuinness’ brilliant 1990 adaptation (originally played by Zoe Wannamaker), I suspect the Old Vic’s new production of Electra will become legendary. It has been called a electra“kill-for-a-ticket triumph,” and I’ve heard has a good chance of making an appearance in New York as well, so remain alert.

My younger daughter spotted its potential last June when tickets first went on sale and took me as a belated Father’s Day Present; she had also managed to get us seats about three feet from where the action was taking place in a superbly reconfigured auditorium that presents the show in the round. I was doubly lucky because there was something quite touching and somehow even symbolic about seeing the quintessential play about a daughter who really loves her father with my daughter,

There’s much to say about the play itself, staged here with grave control in a superb production by Ian Rickson. I know the opera by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmansthal; it’s fascinating to see how different some aspects of the interpretation of this myth are or, rather, how differently Strauss and Hoffmansthal approached it.

But the main focus of amazement and excitement for everyone has been the riveting, intense performance by Kristin Scott Thomashaggard, riddled with neurosis, monomaniacal, intensely calm at times, blackly humorous, given to flaring bursts of fury that could sear your skin. She and Rickson have become quite a teamthey did Chekhov’s The Seagull, and both Betrayal and Old Times by Harold Pinter together to much acclaim and many awards; Their Electra is the perfect setting for Thomas’s performance. She is a diamond that truly burns.

Along with the sound and fury you would expect of a Greek tragedy, she and Rickson understand the need for peaks and valleys; there is actually quite a bit of self-deprecating humour in the readings of several lines that enhances the more harrowing moments. This is not a non-stop gloomfest, as some very bad productions of Sophocles have been in the past. And it is also a thoughtful. It gets very compelling when Diana Quick’s plausible Clytemnestra debates with her daughter Electra the question of why Agamemnon had to be killed in the first place, and the whole context of the curse on the family. Kristin Scott Thomas listens, argues, defies; but her eyes also show a moment of hesitation, a flash of self-doubt before she dismisses this and launches into her verbal attacks on her mother.

Three fine actresses make a good chorus, commenting and interacting as required, and the production promotes a sense of the old hieratic and ceremonial function of theatre in Greek classic times. Mark Thomson’s simple set and the reconfiguring of the theatre itself intensify the experience.

ELECTRA by SophoclesWhen all is said and done, though, the night is Electra’s, as it should be. The scene where she realizes that the callow young man played by Jack Lowden is actually her brother Orestes returned to fulfil the vengeance required of himnot only by her and but by the godsis forever haunting. Everything that Kristin Scott Thomas does in her performance rings true; Electra is being eaten alive by her passion for revenge. but she also wants something more, something abstract real justice. The truth to Electra’s character is Kristin Scott Thomas’s great triumph in this production, along with her astonishing physical and vocal technique. But there’s more: her ability to make an audience utterly sympathetic to her while also terrifying them with the intensity of her obsession. It’s a superb and unforgettable experience and I will continue to be grateful to my own daughter for taking me to it.

The play continues at the Old Vic until 20 December (I guess they didn’t think it would make a great Christmas Show.) And beware: there is no interval, so if you are late you cannot get in to see it live, but will have to watch it on a closed-circuit television in the lobby.

Apollo’s Girl

November 14, 2014


apollo and artemis



Theatre for a New Audience.

By the time you’re thirty-five, you should be ready for a place of your own. So, in a reverse commute that brought them over the river tfanainto the Fort Greene Cultural District in Brooklyn late last year, after decades of yearning for it, TFANA’s sparkling new house became the dream home worth waiting for.

In a first season that included Julie Taymor’s new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (November 19, 2013), and the recent perfect jewel of Peter Brook and Marie-Hėlène Estiennes’ The Valley of Astonishment review, TFANA is now pushing a king-sized envelope with a lavish mounting (19 actors playing 60 parts) of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.tamburlaine John Douglas Thompson stars as the Emperor, a natural role for a multiple award-winner who has specialized in portraying leaders of men (Othello, Macbeth, Richard III, the Emperor Jones) and a king of jazz (Louis Armstrong).

Director Michael Boyd – four-time Olivier Award-winner, a Knight of the Realm, Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company for ten years, of seven Shakespeare plays for the Lincoln Center Festival, and the RSC’s commissioner and developer of Matilda the Musical – has created the first major production of Tamburlaine in New York since 1956, and, like TFANA’s theatre itself, worth waiting for. It’s not often we can visit Marlowe’s 16th century in such good company.

marlowe-corpuschristiChristopher Marlowe was something of a bad boy; a scholarship student at Cambridge who spied for Queen Elizabeth’s secret service, and a double agent later arrested for murder, street-fighting and counterfeiting. This son of a shoemaker also rose to become a brilliant and prolific playwright and poet, whose gifts influenced others – including Shakespeare –long after his death (from an assassin’s knife in a tavern brawl) when he was only 29.

Tamburlaine will run at TFANA’s Polonsky Center through January 4. After that, the season will include two presentations with congenial partners: An Octoroon from Soho Rep, a new adaptation (2014 OBIE, Best New American Play) of Dion Bouccicault’s antebellum melodrama, directed by Sara Benson (February 14 – March 8, 2015 ONLY!). And, from the Fiasco Theatre, Two Gentlemen of Verona perhaps Shakespeare’s first play – directed by Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld. Both were deeply involved in the still-missed wonder-production of Cymbeline (shameless indulgence: I saw it two nights in a row)  It’s great to have them back at TFANA! (From April 24 – May 24, 2015 ONLY!) Truth is, the only smart move is to ensure you’ve got tickets to the entire season: info and tickets

Ensemble Studio Theatre

Over the years (36 since it was founded), Ensemble Studio Theatre has created a body of new plays known for their fearlessness and variety andrecentlyfor traveling well to other venues with works that have first been developed in situ on far West 52nd Street. An ebullient example is Robert Askin’s Hand to God, starring Steve Boyer, who deserved a medal for perfecting the skills of hand puppetry that put a brilliant play right over the top, and led (via another recent production of it) directly to Broadway. review It’s due to open on April 8, 2015, at the Booth Theatre.

Most recently (in another congenial partnership, with the Women’s Project Theater), Cori Thomas’ very New York-now play, When January Feels Like Summer, put its distinctive take on intersecting plots and characters on stage for the month of October. Thomas’ intuition about sanyalthe complexities of the human heart was unassailable, and the tight-knit cast of five was adept at every twist of the plot and turn of character. But Debargo Sanyal’s dual roles (as a transsexual-in-process) was forged in another realm—the one where you’ll never forget a performance―and made you want to see whatever he does next. Director Daniella Topol’s sure hand matched writer and actors every step of the way. (I remember being impressed by her work on Row After Row at the Women’s Project.)

In 2013, Joe Gilford’s Finks (a reality-based drama about the McCarthy era and what happened to Gilford’s parents, Jack Gilford and Madeline Lee Gilford, when it nearly destroyed them) was sometimes achingly funny, but its message was dark, with its darkest messenger a stand-in for Elia Kazan. It took place at the legendary Cafė Society, and at the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The playwright says “I always thought that my parents’ refusal to name names was heroic. But they always explained that they had no choice. They could never hurt their friends.” Finks was a potent reminder of events that should never be forgotten, from a man who remembered them first-hand.

Isaac’s Eye (by Lucas Hnath), an interpretation of the life of Isaac Newton and his duels with the Royal Society, was another landmark production from EST, this one (like Finks) also a reality-based drama but, as its narrator archly warns us, “The play is true and not true. There are lies, but they help us understand the things that are true.” Hnath, director Linsay Firman, and the entire cast delivered a gorgeous dose of historical snark—firmly anchored by real science (which Hnath must have spend eons absorbing)via their version of Story Theatre. Just as I finally caught my breath at the final scene, thinking it doesn’t get any better than this, I learned I was wrong. The play was followed by what was arguably the best Q Lucas 2Matts Gabe EST 022013_0& A in history: the playwright, two history of science professors (working like the proverbial Fric and Frac), moderated by a physicist from Yeshvia University chat. The questions were good (EST’s audience is eager, loyal, and learned), and the answers direct from the cosmos. Only funnier.

The Alfred P. Sloane Foundation and EST have forged one of the theater’s most productive partnerships for sixteen years. Their joint venture has supported many plays, from conception to production (including Isaac’s Eye, and Joe Gilford’s upcoming Danny’s Brain). From now until December 11, you can see what’s in the pipeline and get in on the ground floor with the Sloane/EST First Light Festival. First Light info and tickets

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