Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
Playwright Lindsey Ferrentino was inspired to write this piece by questions surrounding her Aunt Amy, born with Down Syndrome “during a time when medical professionals told my grandparents they had just given birth to a ‘Mongolian idiot’ who would never learn to read or write…” Like the character in her play, Amy was put into a state-funded institution where she surpassed presumptions, but was only visited by family on holidays and vacations. Ferrentino insisted than an actor with Down Syndrome play the role.
Jacob (Mark Blum) and Maggie (Debra Monk) have flown respectively from California and Chicago to bury their father on Staten Island. They bicker with some warmth, but it’s clear the two are not close. The familiar actors are low key, natural, and amusing; skilled with sympathetic banter and timing.
Debra Monk, Jamie Brewer, Mark Blum
On the way, the siblings pick up younger sister Amy (Jamie Brewer of American Horror Story – handily in command ) who’s spent her life in a succession of state institutions. The two still think of her as a child and show up with balloons. How will they break the news? How does one explain death to a challenged mind?
As their father legally turned over primary care – surprise! – Amy’s principal attendant must, they’re told, accompany her. So much for private family bonding. Fortunately, Kathy (a credible Vanessa Aspillaga) is warm, attentive, and intimately knows the young woman whom her brother and sister find a stranger. Surprise?! Kathy’s also loud, talkative, dutifully intrusive, and a bit too much of a cliché.
Amy is sufficiently functional to hold down a job at a local movie theater (chauffeured by the institution van) and acquire a boyfriend oddly named Nick Nolte. Though on the spectrum, she’s nowhere near as immature or oblivious as her relatives concluded. Neither, it seems, has spoken directly with her for years.
John McDermitt and Jamie Brewer
Growing up, every visit from the family entailed going to the movies – clearly a way to avoid talking. The only consistent thing in Amy’s life has been film. She peppers conversation with a remarkable array of applicable quotes and won’t be parted from a fully loaded laptop with headphones.
The above plays out in tandem with backstory scenes featuring two young people who turn out to be Maggie and Jake’s parents. Sarah (Diane Davis) is falling apart under the pressures of caring for a baby who’s diagnosed as hopeless, in addition to two other children and husband Bobby (Josh McDermitt).
It turns out that Amy’s real history is a far cry from the one Maggie and Jake imagined. The startling truth radically affects both feelings about their parents and their own consciences. Perspective adjusts with a deafening screech. Now what?
(Amy’s double entendre curtain speech of movie quotes cleverly gives her the last word – Guess that film!)
“…I have always depended on the kindness of strangers. But no more. I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!! I am serious. Don’t call me Shirley. I’m Bond. James Bond….”
Director Scott Ellis does a good, if not especially original job.
The writing is not as compelling as the subject matter.
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Vanessa Aspillaga, Jamie Brewer, Debra Monk, Mark Blum
Roundabout Theatre Company presents Amy and the Orphans by Lindsey Ferrentino Directed by Scott Ellis Laura Pels Theatre 111 West 46th Street Through April 22, 2018
“Whyever would you want to marry a man who published textbooks, I might’ve been asked. I don’t know, it might be fun.” Peter (Robert Sean Leonard) and Ann (Katie Finneran) live comfortably on East 74th Street with two daughters, two cats, and two parakeets. Their marriage, described by the content husband, is, as they both wished, “a smooth voyage on a safe ship.” Peter is a sweet, unexcitable man whose attention is often elsewhere. Ann has found that years of domestic tranquility are a bit too smooth and a tad more safe than she’d prefer.
Katie Finneran and Robert Sean Leonard
In the course of a seemingly offhand conversation, the two start talking about cleaning fireplace irons and segue to Ann’s dream about having body parts hacked off and Peter’s recently noticed physical anomaly. She says she’s happy, he says he’s happy, but there are hairline cracks. They admit to never discussing “…the things wrong about which nothing can be done.” The couple’s sex life occupies the rest of the conversation, but actual issues are imagination and openness. It’s realistic, warm, amusing, and to the outside observer, worrisome.
Both actors are utterly natural. Leonard is expert with silence, facial expression, and small, exquisitely articulate hand movements. Reserve and embarrassment are as palpable as affection and, ultimately, confusion. Finneran is a constant delight. While Peter barely shifts in his chair, her physical fluidity manifests inhibition, yet no move seems staged. Thought subtly shows on the actress’s bright face. Reactions are wry, loving, unsettled.
The Zoo Story
Robert Sean Leonard and Paul Sparks
Peter takes a book to a bench he frequents in Central Park. Approached by Jerry (Paul Sparks), he at first ignores the scruffy man, then, gradually allows a breach of privacy. The provocative stranger lives in an Upper West Side rooming house that sounds like a temporary homeless residence. There’s beaverboard between his room and the next. Tenants are colorfully motley. Peter discovers this (and is shocked) after a prolonged period of answering Jerry’s often too personal questions and nodding during the his rambling monologue. Is he subconsciously spurred to do this by Ann’s accusations of conservatism?
The mysterious street person is theatrical, insightful, and vaguely threatening. He calls himself crazy, notes Peter’s education while not admitting his own, yet is aware of Baudelaire and uses words like misanthropic. A mimed story about a vicious dog is worth coming to theater. Peter is mesmerized. Despite ample chance to exit, he uncharacteristically loses control caught up in the dangerously escalating situation.
Paul Sparks and Robert Sean Leonard
Paul Sparks is terrific. His quicksilver performance is like watching a fine jazz musician. Riffs start and stop, speed up and slow down with irrational precision. Isolated phrases are yelled or arrive with an accent. The actor moves like a suspicious animal; a restless dancer. We never doubt Jerry’s in the throes of something ungovernable. While inclination is to want Peter to run, we too are riveted…until too late.
Director Lila Neugebauer has encouraged performances like a capella vocals. Nothing interferes with or distracts from the inhabited reality of three people before us. Every move is dictated by the moment. Focus is absolute. Fastidious and discriminating work.
If one were writing a thesis on playwright Edward Albee, these two one-acts, written 45 years apart, would be an excellent example of range. The Zoo Story, initially titled Peter and Jerry, emerged with youthful spit and vigor in 1959. Its prequel, Homelife, a more mature and thoughtful piece, was commissioned by The Hartford Stage in 2004. The two pieces fit so well Albee’s estate now insists their being performed together.
Andrew Lieberman’s uber-minimal Set – artistic unraveling? – works well to keep our attention on characters.
Several instances of false slapping are unfortunate as is the final physical tussle. (Unkledave’s Fight-House)
Photos by Joan Marcus Opening: Katie Finneran and Robert Sean Leonard
Edward Albee’s At Home At The Zoo: Homelife & The Zoo Story Directed by Lila Neugebauer Signature Theatre 480 West 42nd Street
Harry (the excellent Mark Addy) is a no-nonsense, 25-year veteran hangman unacquainted with compassion. Being perpetually corrected as to the grammatical use of “hanged” and “hung” by timid assistant Syd (Reece Shearsmith) does nothing to further his patience. Whether or not the prisoner (Gilles Geary, a believably desperate Hennessy) is guilty is not Harry’s concern. (There are hints of injustice.) Yes, you see a hanging, but unlike many of McDonagh’s plays, death is bloodless and quick. What’s for dinner?
Billy Carter, Richard Hollis, John Horton, Johnny Flynn (seated), and Owen Campbell
Having gained community reputation as a man of importance, Harry retires, and with wife Alice (a solid Sally Rogers) and sullen, shy, patently naïve daughter Shirley (Gaby French – brava second act speech) runs the kind of British pub where locals get their social life. For Charlie (Bill Carter), Bill (Richard Hollis), Arthur (the always credible John Horton), and police commissioner Fry (David Lansbury), the place is a second home. Conversation is basic, low key, often wry (to us).
Two years later, England abolishes hanging. Clegg (Owen Campbell) a young reporter on the village newspaper, interviews the indiscreet Harry on what circumstantially turns out to be the anniversary of Hennessy’s death. That same day, a cocky, visiting Londoner named Mooney (Johnny Flynn) sets in motion inexorable events that will wreck status quo. The stranger couldn’t be more menacing if he carried an exposed weapon dripping blood. Slick amiability does nothing to mask innuendo. As a boy, Mooney undoubtedly enjoyed ripping the wings off flies…in front of friends.
Johnny Flynn and Gaby French
Skillful misdirection plays on cowardice, self-absorption, malevolence, vengeance, and innocence…which is to say, you won’t see the playwright’s practiced hand as it repeatedly disappears metaphoric coins or manifests rabbits. Your head may in fact swivel with surprise.
One of the most entertaining and well crafted of McDonagh’s plays, Hangmen is an ensemble piece. Director Matthew Dunster sees to it that every actor has distinctive personality affecting attitude and bearing. (Only the Inspector feels underdeveloped.) Aesthetic use of space, small business, and character focus keeps the full stage natural. Timing couldn’t be better for inducing tension and surprise. Black comedy is insidious.
Reece Shearsmith and Mark Addy
Reece Shearsmith (Syd) vibrates with infuriated frustration and fear. From his short appearance at the start of the piece to increasing participation, we experience what he feels.
Johnny Flynn (Mooney) makes one’s skin crawl. This outstanding performance is seamlessly, viscerally nasty. Each expression and pause, every ordinary gesture holds as much potential danger as thrillingly horrible outbursts.
Mark Addy and Sally Rogers
Sets are flat out terrific. Designer Anna Fleische creates a bleak, brilliantly scaled prison and well detailed pub that seem so substantial, transition (and its engineering) is a marvel. Having to unlock a double set of pub doors is splendidly utilized to dramatic effect as is the tightly spiraled back stairway. Thick, frosted glass and Queen Anne windows offer a feeling of tradition and longevity. Fleishe is also credited with Costumes which are pitch perfect. Watch for Alice’s change of clothing in anticipation of interviewing Mooney.
Joshua Carr’s Lighting Design is symbiotic. When the stage goes black at the end of each scene, we hear what seems like a metal prison door – redolent and unnerving. Sound Designer Ian Dickinson for Autograph also collaborates with Carr to conjure realistic storms.
Featuring Maxwell Caulfield as Albert, a rival pub owner and former hangman.
Photos by Ahron R. Foster Opening: Mark Addy and Johnny Flynn
Atlantic Theater Company presents The Royal Court Theatre production of Hangmen by Martin McDonagh Directed by Matthew Dunster Linda Gross Theater 336 West 20th Street Through March 25, 2018
Discovered in a treasure-filled parking lot in Leicester, England (next to a pile of bones that didn’t look that important), an ancient manuscript proves to be the long lost first play written by none other than seventeen-year-old William Shakespeare from Stratford. We are totally not completely making this up. From the program.
This rambunctious comedy, part actual Bard, part extremely clever faux Bard (mostly in couplets and rhymes) and entirely rambunctious, posits that the nascent author’s first effort was a mash-up of everything to come. Three multifaceted, quick-change performers play dozens of carefully enunciated, highly exaggerated roles. “It’s a double Quarto, or a Quarto-Pounder!” exclaims a monk hefting the manuscript.
“An ancient grudge pits Puck (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) against Ariel (The Tempest)…” Bald Puck has a tiny pair of wings and diminutive horns. Ariel first appears in a wig, ersatz mermaid tail and t-shirt printed with a shell bra. Not THAT Ariel! She jettisons the tail, but makes a good case that all Disney stories derive from Shakespeare.
Reed Martin, Teddy Spencer, Austin Tichenor
The two spirits put spells on characters from familiar plays as if competing on Xbox. Poof! Dromio and Antipholus (Comedy of Errors) are transported to Italy. Poof! Puck manifests Hamlet, “You tend to be a not-to-be Hamlet. I need you to be a to-be Hamlet…” who gets paired with Ariel’s conjured Lady Macbeth. Except for opulent red curls, disoriented Falstaff looks like Charles Laughton as Henry VIII. Puck sprinkles nectar in the eyes of Juliet. Wait for it. “Dromio, Dromio, where for art thou, Dromio?” she importunes. Other floral ambrosia makes Bottom (Midsummer), now Eyore, a victim of undying love.
Richard III “Look at him cooing like a dove, with a hump only a mother could love…” pays court to Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing) and is swatted for his efforts. “Thou lovest me!” A ukulele vaudeville serenade follows. No dice. “Maybe Richard wants a he not a she.” Affections fluidly switch genders. Into the three witches’ brew (Macbeth) go “things that are never used in part… Democrat brain, Republican heart…” Fake-muscle-bound Oberon (Midsummer) wanders in accusing Puck. “Why should gentle Puck cross his Oberon?” the fairy asks. “To get to the other side.”
We meet King Lear and his daughters, Prospero and Caliban (The Tempest), “Malvoliago” a compendium who strongly resembles Severus Snape (Harry Potter), Cleopatra “I am Egypt’s queen. In my salad days when I was green, I loved Caesar…” Kate (The Taming of the Shrew), several Henrys, another dozen plus players and the Bard himself.
Austin Tichenor, Teddy Spencer, Reed Martin
The show is fast, its cast uninhibited. There’s NO fourth wall. We’re addressed and winked at; a few of you will participate. All three thespians turn on a dime in accordance with audience reaction. Some of the play is stupid, some of it silly, some of it FUNNY. In order to be a good abstract artist, one has to first understand the figurative. These guys “get” Shakespeare. They wreack havoc with sure hands. Young kids, I think might be lost, but older ones, studying the icon, would likely have a grand time watching him well skewered.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company since 1981 has created 10 stage shows, 2 television specials, several tv pilots, and numerous radio pieces worldwide. There’s a kids pop-up book and one for Attention-Impaired adults
Photos Courtesy of the Company Opening left to right: Reed Martin, Teddy Spencer, Austin Tichenor
The Reduced Shakespeare Company presents William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged) Reed Martin-Co-Author, Co-Director, Performer Austin Tichenor- Co-Author, Co-Director, Performer Teddy Spencer- Performer Through March 11, 2018 The New Victory Theater 209 West 42nd Street
A Medieval troop of deadpan, fourth rate Biblical Players is trying to outrun the plague. Not a bad premise for satire. In fact, author Jordan Harrison manages not only to give us a classic backstage scenario but to address morality, mortality, freedom of thought, God, and women’s issues. Pathos is stylized but questions resonate. Except for a contemporary parenthesis which bifurcates the tale, the script is wry, entertaining, and smarter than it looks at first glance.
The content of said naturalistic parenthesis, acted by Michael Cyril Creighton standing in for Harrison and Quincy Tyler Bernstine as herself should unquestionably have been included in the body of the piece. Not only does the jarring segment harm cohesion, but based on the playwright’s obvious cleverness, it seems lazy. This is not to say you won’t enjoy the show, just that this could be more successfully crafted.
Michael Cyril Creighton
“Noah’s Ark” – replete with the Seven Deadly Sins in terrific comedia dell’arte masks – is being prepared for an Italian festival sponsored by a local Duke. Should the players find favor, they hope to be invited inside city walls to wait out the epidemic.
Larking (Thomas Jay Ryan), the company’s bombastic leader, plays God. Yoeman-like Brom (Kyle Beltran) plays Noah, his wife, notably without a first name, is acted by Hollis (Quincy Tyler Bernstine). Rona (Jennifer Kim) plays Mrs. Shem and later, both Mr. and Mrs. Shem. (Doubling and even tripling up is inventively handled.) Hollis’s brother Henry who dies of plague is later replaced by a traveling Physic/Doctor with a secret (Greg Keller). The only company member not on stage until they’re desperate for an extra body, is set and prop maker Gregory (Michael Cyril Creighton) who provides narrative comments.
Jennifer Kim, Quincy Tyler Bernstine
There are obvious and clandestine relationships, hierarchical arguments, deaths, births and colloquial discussions of ontology. Does the religious play make any difference; does art? When Hollis decides Mrs. Noah might not be so acquiescent, everything tips.
The real time company delivers humor without marking jokes, which is to say admirably as if characters are unaware. Of the cast, Greg Keller is sympathetic and credible and Quincy Tyler Bernstine is a pithy pleasure to watch both as herself and Hollis. Michael Cyril Creighton, a newfound treasure, has impeccable, understated timing worth clocking in any theatrical endeavor.
Greg Keller, Thomas Jay Ryan, Quincy Tyler Bernstine
Director Oliver Butler keeps tone just right whether in 2018 or the 14th Century. Restricted movement and singsong recitation during “Noah” aptly differentiates itself from natural banter afterwards. Several characters could have manifest more distinctive attributes, however.
Jessica Pabst’s homespun Costumes are just right before and after the troop upgrades. Raphael Mishner’s Masks and Puppet Design are splendid. (Wait till you see Noah’s dove.)
Scenic Design by David Zinn is charming, painterly, imaginative. The well appointed, wheeled wagon morphs into a stage with ingenuity and period suggestion, looking fully like an illustration from one’s favorite children’s book. Evocation of animals two by two is marvelous. Nor does Zinn muddy up presentation by giving us a painted scrim.
German born Ute Lemper has intermittently channeled Marlene Dietrich for much of her career. This highly theatrical show is based in large part on a three-hour phone call between the ladies in 1988. After receiving the French Molière Award for her Paris performance in Cabaret, young Lemper sent a respectful postcard to the star essentially apologizing for media attention comparing the artists.
Much to her surprise, she received a telephone call in response. From that call and, one assumes, additional research, we hear Dietrich’s ‘first person’ recollection of the vocation she seems to disdain, passionate bisexual love affairs driven by pugnacious independence – with a nod to her open marriage, strong political views, and an enormously fraught relationship with her homeland. Performance is in English, German, and French.
“People don’t know me. They know my face, my cheekbones, my allure…” Dietrich
Two songs rarely associated with Dietrich have decidedly political context: Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” -more angry and emphatic than a usually mournful rendition and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind,” here effectively a rousing wake-up call.
In “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” (Lerner & Lowe) one of several Burt Bacharach arrangements utilized in Las Vegas during Dietrich’s later career, lyrics fight with interpretation. Lemper haughtily sings a middle-of-the-road arrangement without a bit of wistful regret.
“The Boys in The Backroom” (Loesser/Hollaender), or as the vocalist sings “beckroom,” delivers vibrato where Dietrich warbled. Brazen, fist-on-hip attitude ably conjures the saloon scene. “Lili Marlene” (Schultze/Leip) accompanied only by piano is rife with defeat and longing.
Highlights: “The Ruins of Berlin,” written during incarceration, is like listening to weeds push their way up between cracks in the pavement. Lemper’s arms sway out. The number moves from lament to feverish, rhythmic dance, then back, faster and faster… “Black Market”epitomizes Weimar Karabett. Part spoken, part sung, the darkly waltzy song could be a George Grosz painting depicting evil to which one has become accustomed. (Both by Fredrich Hollaender.)
Johnny Mercer’s “When the World Was Young” shows deep sadness through tough exterior. It’s simplicity affects. In “Dejeuner Du Matin” (Prevert/Kosma), the singer emerges an otherwise self-sufficient woman who bows to every selfish need of her man as in Apache dance.
Lemper is a long, sexy drink of water whose steely demeanor alternates with primal sensuality. She has a gritty voice that lends itself to an industrial strength program, pivots between satire, pain and fury, enunciates beautifully, and communicates the era with gut comprehension. Unfortunately, only once in the entire show does the vocalist look at an audience member- with a comment about his glancing at her legs. This deprives us of what should be a deeply intimate and ultimately unnerving connection.
Several selections distance themselves from Dietrich when MD/Pianist Vana Gierig injects highly contemporary riffs and Lemper vocally slip/slides or howls passages like R & B. Were the show to be comprised of fresh takes, this might serve, but couched in authenticity, it’s dissonant. The inclusion of an electric keyboard cheapens and updates whereas violin and cello enhance. Narrative, though extremely illuminating, could successfully be cut by a third, especially at the top heavy opening.
“My soul belongs to France. My heart belongs to England. Nothing belongs to Germany except my body when I’m dead.” Dietrich
Music Director/Pianist- Vana Gierig; Romain Lecuyer-Bass, Cyril Garac-Violin
Production Photos by David Andrako.
Café Carlyle presents Ute Lemper: Rendezvous With Marlene (Dietrich)
Through March 3, 2018
The Carlyle Hotel
35 East 76th Street- Entrance on Madison Avenue
The third and last in Musicals In Mufti’s Jule Styne series is 1961/62 Subways Are For Sleeping. Handicapped by initially negative reviews and the MTA’s unwillingness to post ads, producer David Merrick famously secured and printed laudatory quotes from ordinary people with the same names as New York critics. Though the stunt was discovered, publicity helped box office. Lyricist Adolph Green’s wife, Phyllis Newman, won the Tony Award that year for Best Supporting Actress. It’s easy to imagine her comic abilities in the role of kooky Martha Vail. I find it curious Subways hasn’t been revived before now. It has charm and more than a few worthy songs.
Eric William Morris and Alyse Alan Louis
Young magazine journalist Angie McKay (Alyse Alan Lewis) pitches an article to her editor Myra (Beth Glover) about an underground populous who dress like businessmen but are, in fact, homeless and without employment. The men gather daily at Grand Central Station where nominal leader, Tom Bailey (Eric William Morris), dispenses information on places to safely sleep and short term jobs. Bailey gets these tips from doormen and superintendents to whom he altruistically delivers coffee. Somehow the homeless eat and keep their suits clean, narrowly escaping vagrancy laws. They seem a fairly accepting lot – no drama here. Survival methodology is part cleverness, part fairytale.
David Josefsberg and Gina Milo
Angie and Tom naturally fall in love. Meanwhile, once wealthy underground denizen, Charlie (David Josefsberg), and sweet, dumb blonde, ex-pageant contestant Martha Vail (Gina Milo) – who spends almost the entire show in a towel (just shrug it off) – also become a couple. Angie gets a conscience, Charlie acquires ambition. It all works out in a way that helps street people as far as imagination reaches.
Alyse Alan Louis (Angie) has a lovely voice, but performs with so little expression we literally observe nothing but a smile at the end. Surely the character feels something else over the course of the story.
In contrast, Eric William Morris (Tom) is appealingly animated throughout. Immediately credible, we feel more sympathetic towards his character than the leading lady, not, I think what the show’s authors intended. Morris has a fine voice and moves with spirit.
Karl Joseph Co, Beth Glover, Kilty Reidy, David Engel, Kathryn McCreary, Gerry McIntrye, Alyse Alan Louis, Eric William Morris
Gina Milo plays Martha as if the part were written for her. She’s an excellent comedienne replete with southern accent, habitually flirty demeanor, smarter-than-she-seems innocence, and below-the-surface tenderness.
David Josefberg is adorable as the uber-sincere, completely smitten Charlie. His number “I Just Can’t Wait” (to see you with clothes on) is a comic highlight. An actor of multi-faceted talent.
The assembled cast is vivacious. Direction by Stuart Ross is zippy and evocative despite the minimalism of Mufti. Lacey Erb’s Projection Design splendidly substitutes for scenery. Many photos are so specific, they appear to have been shot for the piece.
Also featuring: David Engel, Kilty Reidy, Karl Josef Co, Gerry McIntyre, Beth Glover, Kathryn McCreary, Beth Glover
Photos by Ben Strothmann
Opening: Top row (left to right): Beth Glover, Kilty Reidy, Karl Joseph Co, Gerry McIntrye, David Engel, Kathryn McCreary. Seated (left to right): Eric William Morris, Alyse Alan Louis, Gina Milo, David Josefsberg
The York Theatre Company presents Musicals in Mufti Subways Are For Sleeping Book and Lyrics-Betty Comden and Adolph Green Suggested by the book by Edmund G. Love Music – Jule Styne Directed by Stuart Ross Music Direction/Piano-David Hancock Turner; George Farmer- Bass The York Theatre 619 Lexington Ave. in St. Peter’s Church Through March 4, 2018 NEXT: The Musical of Musicals -The Musical April 9, 2018
My only caveat about Still Writing After All These Years, this evening’s stage conversation with three eminent, lifetime writers is that it was too short. Moderator Budd Mishkin, just the right person for the job, is well versed on the history of his guests, appreciative without pandering, and a good listener. My title utilizes his quote.
Wardrobe appears to be by Central Casting, each author unwittingly personifying character and prose. Jane Kramer wears well cut, comfortable, practical black. Her answers are full of ancillary, factual detail; staccato hands emphasize. She addresses Mishkin, but reacts to all. Gay Talese, always meticulous in appearance, sports beautiful, undoubtedly bespoke, two-tone shoes. He watches his peers, replies thoughtfully, and gracefully mimes. Calvin Trillin, whose deadpan humor reminds one of Noel Coward, wears a camel sports jacket evoking gentlemanly geniality. Hands on his knees, all expression emerges in words.
Mishkin’s first question is whether the process of sitting down to write is the same now as it was early on. Kramer replies that as a published beginner, “you sit down delighted you’re writing and someone’s reading it….As you get older, expectations of oneself grow.” She uses a computer. Trillin says he tries to stay “three technologies behind,” but finally abandoned his veteran Underwood for the dreaded machine. Talese writes, as he always has, with pencil on a yellow lined pad “which the slowness of my writing requires…I’m 86, one of the reasons I’m still here is I haven’t changed anything in 60 years.”
“Is there doubt creeping in? asks Mishkin. “Not really, ” Kramer responds. Trillin quotes mentor, Mary McCarthy: The horrible thing about getting old is you’ve spent your entire life becoming wise in so many ways and nobody’s listening. Talese tells us he’d take 4-5 hours to write a 3 page article (for the New York Times), when he was just starting. “I wanted what I’d written to be the best I could write.” Neither standards nor fastidiousness has changed.
“What was the first time you thought, I might have something here?” the host asks. “I think self doubt for a writer is often well placed,” quips Trillin. “I do 2 or 3 kinds of writing (more, actually) …I was once at a luncheon with Isaac Asimov who had written some 350 books. The woman next to me commented Mr. Asimov is very quiet. I said, while we were talking, he’s written a novella.” Talese reflects “what’s so wonderful about non-fiction is that you’re not thinking about yourself…I’m endlessly curious about people who aren’t obviously interesting…”
After a career of political coverage, Kramer also finds herself interested in “people on the margins…and, recently, food.” Wherever she travels, she collects recipes.“I became addicted because I became a very good cook….and I enjoy the company. Produce is interesting to me now…”
Trillin has also written what Mishkin refers to as “a piece or two in which food is the star.” This began at The New Yorker when despite knowing nothing about comestibles, the author realized he could write lighter pieces on eating. Rather than approach the style he calls “La maison de la casa house continental cuisine,” Trillin concerned himself with “vernacular food…because it has to do with the place.” When people started calling to ask where to dine, he realized he was doing it too much. “At that point one of my daughters wouldn’t go to Chinatown unless she was carrying a bagel- just in case.”
Each writer is asked to talk about a specific work. Talese recalls Honor Thy Father the rise and fall of a notorious crime family of New York. Sitting at the mafia family trial in 1965, he became intrigued as to the nature of Salvatore “Bill” Bonanno’s family life. Talese introduced himself to the crime boss’s lawyer suggesting a piece, then wrote to him every 2 weeks for 5 years. Eventually the dogged chronicler was invited to dinner, and so it began. Sincere human interest is the greatest form of flattery, often garnering unusual openness from one’s subject. Talese possesses this in spades.
Kramer’s “Whose Art Is It?” centered on white sculptor John Ahearn who lived in and created art for The South Bronx. “We have to understand what it’s like to occupy someone else’s shoes.” Ahearn brought the neighborhood together making life casts, then bronzes in which local denizens saw themselves as heroes. This raised a furor over the political correctness of who might validly represent a people. “It’s not really thrilling to see another Prime Minister. This was thrilling.”
“Alice Off the Page”is Trillin’s tribute to his deceased wife. “I never read anything quite so beautiful and poignant about a spouse,” the host comments. Kramer concurs. Trillin had described Alice (and his family) before, but 3-4 years after her death, his New Yorker editor suggested different perspective. “I had written about her only as a wise, cartoon mom and I wanted people to see how much more she was.” Friends compared the couple to George Burns and Gracie Allen. Alice was George. The author’s daughters reviewed the article at his request finding nothing objectionable.
All of those on stage fell into journalism accidentally. None of the three ever considered another field, none acknowledge any other talent. Trillin pictured reporters in greasy suits with a bottle of bourbon in a desk drawer. “I assumed my father thought I’d be President of the United States and his fallback position was that I not become a ward of the county. After college, he suggested law school.”
Kramer was supposed to marry Stanley, the boy nextdoor. Instead, without saying goodbye, she hotfooted it to New York, registered at Columbia, wrote an article about Norman Mailer’s work in a handed-out student broadside, and was telephoned by her subject. “He told me I was a writer.”
Talese romanticized sports reporting at 10 when he visited temporary training grounds for The New York Yankees in Atlantic City during the war. He thought writers traveled with the team. Later, as a copy boy, the young man learned they “rip and read” i.e. get the news off wires and summarize. Still, the sports desk was his next stop. “To the present day, I find sports interesting. It gives the opportunity to see the story.”
The four discuss “fake news” and misinformation disseminated by the net. Trillin misses library research. Kramer references her publication’s fact checkers. Talese believes in face to face research. They all concede the electronic behemoth is nonetheless useful.
When Mishkin asks whether his guests think we’ll see the end of hard copy books, magazines, and newspapers, Talese notes “We need serious reporting and we don’t get that on the Internet…I believe reporting is not what it used to be. Bylines used to have a certain voice. Now, only The New Yorker does…”
“I envy every person in the country who finds a piece you have written for the first time,” Mishkin declares in parting.
The three writers are scary smart, accessibly articulate, entertaining and very much themselves. What more could one ask?
Jane Kramer – European correspondent for The New Yorker, author of 10 books.
Gay Talese- At The New York Times, 1956-1965 , he helped define literary journalism, myriad articles, 14 books.
Calvin Trillin- journalist, humorist, food writer, poet, memoirist and novelist.
Budd Mishkin – 40 years broadcast journalist; 2003 started One on 1 with Budd Mishkin on New York 1
Photo Courtesy of 92Y Left to Right: Gay Talese, Jane Kramer, Calvin Trilin, Budd Mishkin
The 92Y presents Still Writing After All These Years- (a nod to Paul Simon’s song “Still Crazy After All These Years”) Jane Kramer, Gay Talese, and Calvin Trillin in Conversation with Budd Mishkin February 22, 2018 92Y 92/93 Lexington Avenue