Thanking the Academy

Leta and I are tweaking the short monologue The Gold Lunch that I will be doing at the one-act festival two weekends from now. Once we got past some initial flabbiness on my part (Leta would say, “You’re not connected to this. You sound like Jaclyn Smith on Charlie’s Angels.”) we found a groove for it.

What is still difficult, what we are working and reworking like a fussy passage in an oil painting, is the opening 60 seconds. I’m giving this from atop the customary 3-level podium (John B. is building it) all lit up like Oscar night. This is the piece’s expository passage, where the Medalist (as we’re calling Ron Carlson’s anonymous narrator) has to sell the audience on the idea that Eating Lunch with Your Ex-Wife is now a medal sport in the Olympics. Once he gets us through that section, he can go on (from a set dressed with a lovely tile table and chairs that we found in the theater lobby) to show how he won the gold.

But it’s that opening minute (out of maybe 13:00, tops) that is killing us. Leta has tried suggesting any number of images—Lou Gehrig’s farewell at Yankee Stadium, the kiss-and-cry area just off the ice at a figure skating competition, Sally Field’s Oscar acceptance speech, getting a mic shoved in your face by Mary Hart at the Emmys—to motivate what happens. We’ll find something that works, eventually.

I found a suitably smudgy recording of the national anthem to play for the opening music, but Leta kiboshed my recording of Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” for curtain call. We’re going to try some Blossom Dearie instead.

Why I’m still reading “The Twenty-Seventh City”

Joe Queenan’s bedside bookstand
must be a library table: at any given moment, he’s reading two dozen books.

The closest I can come to understanding my reading habits is the possibility that I became addicted to starting books as a child because books usually take off like a house on fire but then ease up around Page 70. The Iliad kicks off with Achilles’ decision to go off and pout, denuding the narrative of its star performer, so it is understandable why a thrill-seeking kid might set it aside and take a crack at Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. Most books written by journalists start off with two good chapters, followed by loads of padding, then regain a bit of momentum for the big roundup. This is because editors encourage writers to frontload the merchandise, jamming all the good stuff into the early chapters, the only chapters that will ever get read. I was once told that readers regularly abandon books around Page 60, vowing to get back to them later. Well, I do get back to them later. I started Lord Jim in high school and finished it when I was 52. Gratification delayed is gratification all the same.

At least they didn’t specify marble

If you’ve ever wondered why all the underground stations of Metro look so much alike, and why you can’t just glance out the window and find where you are from the color of the posts (as in Chicago, for instance), you have the Commission of Fine Arts to thank, in part. The CFA had oversight over Harry Weese’s station designs, and reviewed them at critical points in 1967, according to Zachary M. Schrag’s excellent The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. Certain members of the CFA, among them architecture critic Aline Saarinen, admitted that they had little experience with underground transit—she took hired cars in New York—and yet she said, “I don’t really believe if I’m on a subway I come to and say, ‘Oh, that’s the blue station; I’ve got to get off here.'” (Schrag, p. 91)

Of course, our out-of-town visitors sometimes take the Red Line/Orange Line/etc. designations too literally, and wonder why the stations aren’t the same color as the line designation, instead of their impressive and uniform concrete gray, brick red tile, and granite.

Why we put pepper in the bird feeder

Via Tangled Bank, Coturnix interprets research by Joshua Tewksbury and Gary Nabhan into the two-part evolutionary strategy of hot chili pepper plants: the fruits are brightly colored, soft, and sweet-smelling in order to attract birds, but unpleasantly spicy to repel mammals. The team fed peppers to birds (a species of thrasher, specifically), which passed the seeds in a viable state; but the seeds of peppers fed to packrats and cactus mice were usually partially digested.

In Martinsburg

Saturday morning I spent drinking coffee and reading a not-great short story anthology by a well-known American novelist, early-career efforts that were solidly mediocre, while I sat on Audrey and Charlie’s deck, listening to their neighbor running a backhoe across the top of the next ridge, scraping the pasture into what will become lawn. Along with the mockingbirds disputing territory and the goldfinches singing just to be singing, I watched a pair of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris) visit Audrey’s sugar-water feeder. The feeder was close enough that I could hear the buzz of wings as the birds hovered. And I heard something new, as a bird decided to perch up, the better to slurp artificial nectar: small chip notes, like tiny sneakers on a basketball court.

Contemporary American Theater Festival, 2006

This year’s festival includes a pair of memory plays, both of them premieres, Kim Merrill’s Sex, Death, and the Beach Baby and Keith Glover’s Jazzland. Merrill tells of a young woman haunted by a betrayal and death by drowning off the Jersey shore, while Glover riffs on the tensions between jazz and rock and roll. In Jazzland, a young jazz trumpeter, Roderigo, in recovery from an automobile accident, pieces the story of his own life back together as well as that of his father, Ram, an alto saxophonist who, following popular sentiment, began playing rock gigs. Questions of artistic integrity and faithfulness to an idiom are raised, but the play’s high-flying abstractions leave us with characters not fully realized. The most inventive material in the piece, as well as the most successful, is the recreation of the gigs played by Roderigo, Ram, and Ram’s partner Twist. Rather than demand expert musicianship from his actors, Glover gives them spoken-word pieces that they perform over a recorded-music background: the air crackles when Ram (the rich-voiced Joseph Adams) and Miles-like trumpeter Twist (the electric Scott Whitehurst) start trading eights.

Christopher Durang’s student Noah Haidle brings us the published Mr. Marmalade, a twisted comic fantasy told through the eyes of four-year-old Lucy, played by the full-grown Anne Marie Nest. Lucy’s single-parented life is rather grim, so it’s not surprising that her imaginary friend, Mr. Marmalade, is as likely to smack her around or take cellphone calls during Tea Party as he is to take her ballroom dancing or cruising to Mexico. Sara Kathryn Bakker steals her scene as Sunflower, imaginary friend or Lucy’s new real-world friend, dweeby Larry (dressed hysterically by Margaret A. McKowen).

CATF veterans Carolyn Swift, Andy Prosky, and Kaci Gober return in the best show of the festival, Richard Dresser’s new Augusta. Dresser’s latest satire of life on the fringes of the corporate world has his signature dangerous bite: imagine chewing on a live electrical cord. Prosky’s middle manager Jimmy is in charge of teams of house cleaners, including the pair formed by just-hanging-on Molly (Swift) and just-getting-started Claire (Gober). Jimmy’s glad-handing smile, so disconnected from the small-minded manipulations going on behind it, is frightening. Swift’s Molly, ever blasted by life, has a posture when she’s being chewed out by Jimmy that looks like she’s being blown through a wind tunnel without Swift moving a muscle. Shaun L. Motley’s clever three-level set serves as the mansion that Claire and Molly clean, several restaurants and hotel rooms, and Jimmy’s office. The set cantilevers beds and divans into empty space, and its half-height floors remind us of the tilted world of Being John Malkovich. At the end of this play, proposed as the first of a trilogy on happiness (?!), after he is hoist by his own petty schemes, Jimmy is philosophical: “In this line of work, you learn to take the bad with the really bad.”

  • Sex, Death, and the Beach Baby, by Kim Merrill, directed by Karen Carpenter
  • Mr. Marmalade, by Noah Haidle, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Jazzland, by Keith Glover, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Augusta, by Richard Dresser, directed by Lucie Tiberghien
  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.