Saturday, August 26, 2006

Book roundup

Sheesh, what a lame post title.

In the past few weeks I've managed to polish off some in-the-news literary-ish novels—Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, Jennifer Egan's The Keep (#17 on the Times' best-seller list as I type) and Bruce Wagner's Memorial—in addition to my usual subway diet of translated noirs.

Wagner's book I'm reviewing for Time Out, so more on it later. The Emperor's Children isn't great, but quite good. Messud captures a certain kind of ego-laden not-quite-young-anymore Manhattanites, as well as a self-absorbed star pundit always ready to shoot off about the heavy topics of the day. More intriguing than the plot, however, is why the book isn't great. Danielle's affair with her best friend's father reads obvious; Bootie comes across as paint-by-number plot device, not actual character. And everything is so goddam tidy! Messud can do drama but not tragedy. Actually, I'm not even sure she can do drama—what she's good at is dramedy. She's excellent at capturing details and specific, self-contained scenes (like the outré one in which Julius is caught cheating by his boyfriend) but the overall picture lacks heft and urgency.

The Keep is what happens when a literary writer does genre. Egan could have written a nicely packaged gothic suspense (and the passing allusion, conscious or not, to The Prisoner, is pretty cool) but she took it one step further by making it a book about writing, confinement real and metaphorical, and imagination, as it quickly appears that the story about Danny coming into a mysterious central European castle actually is a writing-class project by a prison inmate, and whether the tale has real-life roots is left ambiguous until the very end. The Keep looks more lightweight than The Emperor's Children at first, but in its own way it's as much of an achievement. You could also say that both books are written by skillful authors full of self-awareness about what they're doing. Both at times read like MFA honors' program projects in that they feel…deliberate.

As for the subway books (as in, the ones I read on my daily commute), Tonino Benacquista's Tout à l'ego collects short stories from the 1990s, but is far from prime Benacquista—I prefer his novels as his stories rely too much on a last-page black-humored twist (a tactic very reminiscent of Fredric Brown, a cultish author who seems better remembered in France than in the US these days). Benacquista's last couple of books (Quelqu'un d'autre, Malavita) have brought diminishing artistic returns just as his popularity has soared. He may never top early noirs such as La Maldonne des sleepings and La Commédia des ratés, but at least his screenwriting collaborations with director Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips and The Beat That My Heart Skipped) have contributed to the rejuvenation of French film noir

Arnaldur Indridason's Reykjavik-set Silence of the Grave is one of the bleakest, most depressing procedurals I've ever read. The background is domestic violence, and Indridason is so good at mood that you almost forget the holes in the plot.

Finally, Henning Mankell's The Man Who Smiled, which actually was written in 1994 but is just being put out by the Free Press. Inspector Kurt Wallander starts off deep in a depressive funk, matched by totally gloomy weather: Now that's what I call top Scandi noir! Unfortunately, reading this book also reminded me of how mediocre the newer Mankell offerings have been in comparison to his older stuff—in the recent Before the Frost, the Swedish master managed to turn Wallander's daughter Linda into one of the most annoying fictional characters in recent memory. If he has any sense at all, he'll have her killed in the line of fire in the next installment.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

"My rock bottom is still your wildest dreams"

Or so brags Martin Short in his Broadway show, Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me.

Ah, funnymen… I've always had a fondness for ’60s-style vaudeville, and Fame Becomes Me delivers a healthy dose of it. The show is good-natured fluff but entertaining, especially in the Jiminy Glick segment, when Short "interviews" a guest picked from the audience. Nathan Lane "happened" to be there when the Times' Ben Brantley came to see the show; my esteemed colleague Adam Feldman got Cynthia Nixon; we were treated to the Crying Comedian himself—Rip Taylor. The next few weeks are going to be rough.

But Taylor's cameo actually resulted in five minutes of show-biz magic because suddenly the evening, which had been ambling along nicely, turned lunatically surreal. First, Taylor readjusted his toupee (with highlights, mind you) as he was ushered on. Then Short/Jiminy Glick proceeded to unleash a barrage of passive-aggressive jokes, playing off, for instance, Taylor's bling ring. When Taylor was led back out, looking completely dazed and barely coherent as he tottered in his Mephistos, I was in comedy heaven.

Other than that, the show delivers a series of brief, reasonably fun songs written by Marc Shaiman (who's also on stage) and Scott Wittman (who directed). Several of them spoof classic musical moments: "Step Brother de Jesus" is a take on Godspell/Hair-type hippie musicals; "The Lights Have Dimmed on Broadway" underscores how Wicked's washed-out pop style is a haven for showoffy singers; the staging of "Three Gorgeous Kids" rips off…sorry, is a tribute to the "Triplets" number from Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon. And Sondheim gets a couple of nods: "Married to Marty" mimics "Getting Married Today" from Company, and the master gets namechecked for not writing black characters in "Stop the Show."

That dig feels rather rich, however, considering the song in question is typical of Shaiman and Wittman's knack for having it both ways, which I think prevents them from graduating from good songwriters to great ones. (That and the fact that Shaiman is a better composer than Wittman is a lyricist.) Powerhouse singer Capathia Jenkins is made to both deride the habit musicals have of inserting a "big black lady" who stops the show with a belt at the eleventh hour and embody that very trend. This is pretty cheeky of Shaiman and Wittman, considering that she's the only one in the supporting cast who doesn't participate in the previous ensemble songs. She's in the opening number, then is off stage for almost an hour before coming back as a nurse looking after the supposedly comatose Short, then as, well, the belting big black lady. Was she gone for an hour because she didn't, you know, fit? Sorry, doesn't fly: Parts of the show are obviously tailored to the supporting cast's various strengths—Nicole Parker gets to do the impersonations of Ellen DeGeneres, Celine Dion and Britney Spears she's perfected on MADtv for instance. And Shaiman and Wittman couldn't give Jenkins more to do? Weird.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Welcome wagon

I feel lucky to live in a town where I can see Meryl Streep on stage. Not only that, but in a version of Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children adapted by Tony Kushner and directed by George C. Wolfe, with new music by Jeanine Tesori (the team behind the wonderful Caroline, or Change). The Sheila and I were lucky to have seats in the fourth row, center, so we got to see La Streep in action from real close. Watching her was like watching a virtuoso musician in full control of her instrument.

I used to be completely obsessed with Streep at the beginning of her film career: The Seduction of Joe Tynan, with Alan Alda; Manhattan, of course; another strong-willed woman depicted as selfish and manipulative in Kramer vs. Kramer; and above all The Deer Hunter and The French Lieutenant Woman. My infatuation ended with Sophie's Choice: Streep wasn't acting anymore, she was acting—all tics (check out how she uses the sideway glance to indicate pretty much anything) and affectations. It was downhill from there: Out of Africa, Ironweed and A Cry in the Dark, the latter marking the beginning of the Accent Years.

A trilogy of sorts in which Streep fully unleashed her hitherto disguised comic chops stood out: She-Devil, Postcards from the Edge and Death Becomes Her (the 1980s version of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane). Alas, the reinvention they seemed to augur didn't take, and Streep spent the 1990s playing the ideal suffering mom—especially when fighting back (The River Wild)—and hiding behind spot-on accents (The Bridges of Madison County, Dancing at Lughnasa). It was as if part of her wanted to be the ideal Yankee mom, and another part negated her blond all-American-ness. By then, I had given up on her.

It took Charlie Kaufman to return her to greatness: First in Adaptation, then, in 2005, with his live radio play Hope Leaves the Theater, in which Streep gleefully skewered her own image as a grande dame of the stage. A few months later, she brought the house down at the Public Theater's 50th-anniversary celebration when she sang "Sodomy" from Hair.

This production of Mother Courage has a lot going for it, even when Wolfe's staging feels muddled, even when Kushner gets carried away and keeps padding the original text so that the show lasts over three hours. But what really makes it is Streep: She's on stage the entire time and you can't take your eyes away from her. Who else could have done this role at this point? Stockard Channing maybe. Why not Patti LuPone? Any suggestions, dear readers?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Kiki and Herb: Mixed up on Broadway

Weirdly mixed feelings about Kiki and Herb's new Broadway show. Or should I say "new"? Fans of the dynamic duo (played by Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman) will be familiar with a fairly large portion of Kiki and Herb: Alive on Broadway, which isn't necessarily a good thing. Part of K&H's appeal derives from familiarity with their backstory. Back in the downtown days, it would be randomly revealed over the course of various performances: One night you'd get a story about the tragic death of Kiki's daughter, Coco; another you'd learn about about why Kiki's other daughter, Miss D, had to be placed with social services; on yet another, there may be some long-winded reminiscence about cavorting with celebrities in Swinging London, or about one of the duo's half-forgotten, misguided albums. The K&H shows were about the balance between CC and ginger–fueled trips down memory lane (emphasis on trips) and the disheveled, hysterical performance of pop and rock nuggets, some of them stretched to absurd lengths and interspersed with flotsam and jetsam popping to the surface of Kiki's brain with Tourette's-like randomness. At one point I was so obsessed with Kiki and Herb that I went to see them almost every week.

For their Broadway debut, K&H blend new selections (Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," Scissor Sisters' "Take Your Mama") with some of their tried-and-true hits ("Total Eclipse of the Heart," introduced as part of the Broadway songbook, which is technically true since it was in Jim Steinman's dreadful Dance of the Vampires; Daniel Johnston's "Walking the Cow," as usual paired with the anecdote about Kiki's cow Daisy eating Jesus' afterbirth). The banter similarly incorporates familiar anecdotes (Kiki meeting Herb for the first time) and new material, including a heavy-handed pro-gay-marriage paean in the second act that doesn't feel very Kiki at all.

And my question here is: Why not a brand-new show? If you're going to be on Broadway, why not expand the K&H experience? After all, the kind of washed-up cabaret duo created by Bond and Mellman would have jumped on the opportunity to go overboard, to hire some dancing boys and girls and jump headfirst into Great White Way vulgarity. I guess the rationale is to expose newcomers to the duo's world (it worked for Ben Brantley), but the end result feels frustratingly on the fence. The show is too outré for a run-of-the-mill Broadway audience, but not enough for its natural constituency. And because of the very nature of Kiki and Herb's act—which to me was among the most innovative of the past decade—I'm not sure that problem can be solved.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Gothic noir

Vacationing at my parents' a couple of summers ago, I stumbled upon the last few minutes of a very strange 1940s movie late one night. I couldn't identify the title, but the film seemed to involve a group of urbane devil-worshippers and a mysterious woman in perfectly even black bangs. Reading about producer Val Lewton (of Cat People fame) recently, I realized the odd movie I'd caught was called The Seventh Victim (1943) and Lewton, rather than director Mark Robson, was considered its author. (You can read the screenplays of Lewton's major movies here.) Finally watching the movie in its entirety over the weekend revealed it to be a melancholy, chiaroscuro tone poem—tellingly, it opens with an epigraph from a John Donne sonnet: "I runne to death and death meets me as fast, and all my pleasures are like yesterday."

Kim Hunter, in her screen debut, plays Mary, a young woman who leaves her boarding school (and its lesbianish headmistress) to look for her vanished sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks, she of the bangs and once married to director Richard Brooks). If she lived now, Jacqueline would be labeled a depressive and put on Zoloft. But we're in 1943 and her fascination with death (she often retires to a room empty except for a chair and a hangman's noose) leads her to join the Palladists, a sect of devil-worshippers so well-heeled, you expect them to hold their coven meetings at the Algonquin. But we only discover this progressively, mostly through clues left by the men who gravitate around the yin-yang sisterly planets: a ratty, doomed private detective; Jacqueline's husband (who explains to Mary that her sister "had a feeling about life—that it wasn't worth living unless one could end it"); a failed, inquiring poet; and a psychiatrist whose unctuous charm is both charming and menacing. The movie weaves a very odd spell, stumbling from one scene to another, its narrative driven not by logic but by a phantasmagorical aesthetic.

This is typical of Lewton, who usually turned his lack of budget into an advantage, replacing A-list stars and grand sets or effects with idiosyncratic performers directed to underact (Kim Hunter looks as if she's sleepwalking throughout, as if she had stepped into a dream in order to find her lost sister) and dramatic lighting and camera angles. In this respect, The Seventh Victim is exemplary, a catalogue of a man's obsessions.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Cirque du Sexy

Burlesque doesn't really rock my boat, and that genre's revival in the 2000s has largely left me cold. But mix it up with vaudeville and plain old circus acts, and suddenly it's a whole different kettle of hoopla. Absinthe, a show currently running at the Spiegeltent parked by Southstreet Seaport, is a real hoot because it's so obviously derived from the late 19th/early 20th century vaudeville shows in which sopranos belting out arias coexisted with men who ran around and hit each other on the head with frying pans—Buster Keaton, among others, learned his trade on that circuit.

The acts are real short in Absinthe, and the audience sits real close, sometimes uncomfortably so. From that spatial and temporal brevity springs an engaging spectacle in which genuine physical feats come in very sexy wrapping. Fans of new circus (or is that New Circus?) will be familiar with the approach, but when well done—and it is very well done in Absinthe—it bears watching again and again. (Though Camille O'Sullivan may want to reconsider covering "Falling in Love Again" in its original German; her pronunciation is iffy.)

Highlight for me was Ursula Martinez's striptease-cum-prestidigitation number, which brought the audience to its feet, hooting. I hear that Martinez is likely to be back next year as part of the Duckie show P.S 122 is bringing from London. But it's her solo pieces—which explore the border between public and private, fiction and autobiography, and which she's done in venues such as the Barbican—that I'd love to see most. Let's hope a keen-eyed NYC producer drops by Absinthe.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

I'm an Indian too

Until it officially opens, I will refrain from posting at length about the new A.R. Gurney play, Indian Blood, seen tonight at 59E59. A quick comment, though: Rebecca Luker is in it (and no, it's not a musical), and she looks uncannily like Catherine O'Hara. She even talks like her. Weird.

Another recent viewing, on DVD this time: John Huston's 1948 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Great scene at the beginning, when a Mexican kid (played by Robert Blake!) tries to get Humphrey Bogart to buy a lottery ticket. Bogart keeps waving him away, the kids keeps insisting, so Bogey throws a glass of water at him. Ah, the days when movies showed people casually being mean to kids (as opposed to showing more severe child abuse, which is relatively frequent on screen now and becomes the point of the story, rather than a visual detail meant to delineate a character) and smoking… Of course, the brief scene is meant to foreshadow the revelation that Bogart's character is a little, how shall I put it?—unstable. Still…

The movie also confirms that I much prefer Bogart as a bad guy; another favorite performance by him is as a nasty, violent screenwriter in Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place, made two years after Sierra Madre. The novel upon which that film is based, by Dorothy Hughes, is quite different but still worth picking up, especially since it was reissued by the Feminist Press three years ago. (I actually did an article about the Feminist Press' pulp reissues, including Hughes' book, at the time.)

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Musical à deux

The latest New Group production, Everythings Turning Beautiful, is an interestingly flawed musical—or is it a play with music? In any case, it deserved better than the snottily dismissive, largely padded review Ben Brantley delivered in the Times, if only because it at least attempts to integrate the songs in an organic way. It's true that Seth Zvi Rosenfeld's characters sometimes have to deliver purplish prose, but the musical interludes flow out naturally because Daphne Rubin-Vega and Malik Yoba play songwriters obsessed both with their crafts and their collaboration with each other; it feels completely right that they would perform for each other all the time. In addition, singing allows them to avoid actually talking about what's really on their mind. (Oink-oink moment: The leads both look great in their underwear.)

While Rubin-Vega's voice is rather frayed at this point (a scary prospect since she's slated to play Fantine in the upcoming revival of Les Miz), Yoba's is soulful in a restrained way, and he's a stage natural. Perhaps the Public should look in his direction next time it wants to put on an interesting Shakespeare.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Pop thoughts

After getting irrationally excited that Latoya (Jackson) not only had a new album out but had managed to get it to no. 1, I was slightly disappointed upon learning that it actually was LeToya (Luckett) who had a smash on her hands. Still, it's pretty fun to see someone kicked out of Destiny's Child after two albums make it to the top by out-Beyoncéing Beyoncé. While the sight of yet another CD relying on generous servings of soul classics (Love Unlimited on "U Got What You Need," the Stylistics on "Torn," the Spinners on "She Don't") is maddening, LeToya actually pulls the mix of R&B and hip-hop better than most—indie rockers should listen to the production on "Tear Da Club Up" and weep.

Speaking of production, John Tofu pointed out to me that there's no bass on Fergie's current single, "London Bridge"—ballsy!

And Ciara finally has a song worthy of "1, 2"; it's the exquisitely elastic "Get Up" and it's lurking on the Step Up soundtrack.

Is it me or is the summer of 2006 one of the best in recent memory when it comes to hit songs? Between Rihanna's "SOS," Nelly Furtado's "Promiscuous," Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man," Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie," Fergie's "London Bridge" and half a dozen others I'm forgetting, we're pretty spoiled.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Split personalities

In today's New York Times, Janet Maslin reviews Julie Phillips' James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice Sheldon. Tiptree was one of the authors I discovered when as a teen I started plowing through my father's numerous issues of Galaxie, a French science-fiction magazine, and his collection of hardcover books published in the early 1970s by Opta/Club du livre d'anticipation. (French sci-fi geeks will nod in nostalgic recognition.) Of course at the time I had no idea that Tiptree was a woman. While the gender-bending aspect of the Sheldon/Tiptree story is obviously crucial, especially since, according to Maslin, Phillips suggests Sheldon was a lesbian, I find the general idea of building a new identity—any new identity—as a writer equally compelling.

Multiplying identities according to various projects isn't new, as anybody who's tried to find their way through electronic-music releases can attest (Richard James = Aphex Twin = Polygon Window = Power Pill = AFX; Sasu Ripatti = Vladislav Delay = Luomo = Sistol = Uusitalo), but somehow it seems to have a deeper connection for a writer than a musician. A few months ago came out Angie David's biography of Dominique Aury, who was a textbook example of dissimulation and secret coding as both personal and creative covers. (No fan of Judith Butler et al., I'm contorting myself not to use the word masquerade.) While the book is titled Dominique Aury, that name wasn't even the subject's real one. Born Anne Desclos, she switched to Aury relatively quickly, then wrote Story of O under a second alias, Pauline Réage. Aury had a thriving career as an editor in the French postwar publishing world, while Réage wrote one of the most famous erotic novels of the 20th century. It doesn't seem like a total coincidence that Tiptree wrote science fiction and Réage a novel about an SM relationship. Both sci-fi and erotic fiction rely on precise codes, and part of the fun of masquerading (damn!) is to obey a different set of rules than the ones you are meant to follow publicly. Perhaps this is why the nicknames and varying identities of electronic-music guys feel like such a pose: They don't seem to hide deep differences between personal/artistic purposes, only relatively slight variations between projects at best (it's not as if Richard James produces 50 Cent under a false name), whims at worst. See Philip Sherburne's thoughts on the subject of names in electronic music.

And lest I miss the opportunity for a oink-oink moment: Angie David certainly knows how to pose for a publicity photo. The head leaning on the arms…the sweep of the hair…the leather boots…