One-Minute Book Reviews

July 28, 2010

Donald Margulies’s Play ‘Collected Stories’ – A Poet in His Youth, Again

Filed under: Plays — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:37 pm
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A Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright explores the relationship between a writing teacher and a student who forges her own career

Collected Stories: Revised Edition. By Donald Margulies. Dramatists Play Service, 68 pp., $8.95, paper.

By Janice Harayda

Who owns the story of an adult’s life? Donald Margulies explores the moral and psychological implications of the question in Collected Stories, which had a brief run on Broadway earlier this year. Margulies doesn’t parse legal issues in this play about a 55-year-old New York writing teacher, Ruth Steiner, and her evolving relationship with a young student, Lisa Morrison, who forges her own career.

Collected Stories instead follows the intersecting emotional arcs of a mentor and her protégée as the story builds toward an act the older woman sees as a betrayal. Lisa urges her teacher to talk about an affair she had years earlier with the poet Delmore Schwartz, then uses what she learns for her own purposes. Ruth sees her student’s appropriation as a form of theft and psychic annihilation. She tells Lisa: “You wanted to obliterate me.” Lisa insists she didn’t: “I wanted to honor you.”

Who is right? The play leans toward Ruth but has little new to say about the age-old dance of transference and countertransference between a mentor and protégée. As in his Pulitzer Prize–winning Dinner With Friends, Margulies paints his characters’ needs with a broad brush. But he’s a skilled craftsman: He seems to have removed every needless word with the literary equivalent of turpentine, and his play is well-paced and structured. And the question “Who owns the story of your life?” has gained provocative and slippery dimensions in the age of Facebook and text messages. High school and college students might have hours of lively arguments about this play even as their elders prefer to dust-off their Vintage paperback editions of Poets in Their Youth.

Best line: Ruth: “Are you going to survive this tutorial, or are you going to require oxygen?”

Worst line: Ruth on Delmore Schwartz: “He was only 44 but there was something ancient about him. He seemed to possess so much wisdom …”

You may also want to read: Jonathan Yardley’s review of Poets in Their Youth: A Memoir (Vintage, 1983), Eileen Simpson’s memoir of her husband, John Berryman, and his circle, including Delmore Schwartz.

Read a review of the 2010 Broadway production of Collected Stories in the Wall Street Journal.

You can order Collected Stories online though Dramatists Play Service.

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 20, 2009

Ambition 10, Fame 3 — Nancy Balbirer’s ‘Take Your Shirt Off and Cry,’ a Memoir of Near-Misses as an Actor in Hollywood and New York

Did she miss out on fame because Hollywood is ruthless or because she consulted wackos like the psychic who spoke in the voice of an ovary?

Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences. By Nancy Balbirer. Bloombsbury USA, 256 pp., $16, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Nancy Balbirer updates the saying that acting is a hard way to earn an easy living in this uneven memoir of two decades of near-misses in show business. Balbirer tells lively stories about how she landed modest roles on Seinfeld and MTV while paying her rent through jobs like cocktail-waitressing and blow-drying friends’ hair for $20, all the while yearning for stardom that came neither in New York nor Hollywood.

But it’s unclear how much of her book you can believe, and not just because an author’s note warns – here we go again – that some facts have been changed “for literary reasons.” Balbirer takes her title and theme from a warning she says she got during a private conversation with the playwright David Mamet, one of her acting teachers at the Tisch School of the Arts. As she tells it, Mamet said that as a woman in show business, she’d be asked to do two things in every role she played:

“Take your shirt off and cry. Still, there’s no reason that you can’t do those things and do them with dignity and the scene properly analyzed.”

Did Mamet really say those lines as written? Good writers tend to keep related words together unless they have reason to split them up, and you wonder if Mamet said, “Take your shirt off” instead of the more graceful “Take off your shirt.” And his “still” seems stilted for a conversation between two people walking toward a Seventh Avenue subway stop.

In the years that followed her talk with Mamet, Balbirer took her shirt off – literally and figuratively — more than once. Yet her willingness to expose herself may have had more to do with a lack of self-awareness than with the raw exploitation envisioned by Mamet. On the evidence of Take Your Shirt Off and Cry, Balbirer has that paradoxical combination so often found in actors: enough intelligence to welcome complex Shakespearean and other roles but too little of it to stay away from con artists, whether they take form of tarot card readers or manipulative lovers. She’s hardly alone among would-be stars in having found an eviction notice taped to her door before she earned redemption (which came, in her case, from writing and starring in the solo show I Slept With Jack Kerouac). But you wonder if she might have avoided some disasters if she’d given less money to people like “a psychic in Tennessee” who spoke to her in the voice of one of her ovaries.

“Wacky, yes, and even wackier that my ‘ovary’ had a thick Southern accent,” she admits, “and still … I believed.”

Best line: Two of the “the enormous angry placards” Balbirer saw in the waiting areas of casting offices: “ACTORS MAY NOT EAT IN THIS AREA!!!” and “ACTORS: CLEAN UP YOUR GARBAGE!!” See also the quote posted earlier on May 20.

Worst line: No. 1: Some parts of Take Your Shirt Off and Cry are so neat, they leave you wondering if they include made-up scenes, dialogue, or characters. Balbirer doesn’t clarify the issue in a vague author’s note that says that she has “in some instances, compressed or expanded time, or otherwise altered events for literary reasons, while remaining faithful to the essential truth of the stories.” No. 2: Balbirer likes cute words (such as “humonguous,” “bazillion” and “suckiest”) that at times work against the serious points she is trying to make.

Published: April 2009

About the author: Balbirer co-owns the Manhattan restaurant Pasita.

One-Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

October 1, 2008

A Few Comments on Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons’ on Broadway and in Print

It’s remarkable how a well-staged Broadway production can transcend the defects of a play. Last weekend I saw All My Sons in previews at the Schoenfeld Theatre, and the time flew by.

You hardly noticed how prosaic Arthur Miller’s writing can be because the production had so much going for it, including brisk direction by Simon McBurney and a glossy cast: John Lithgow, Dianne Wiest, Patrick Wilson, and Katie Holmes.

After I got home, it seemed to me that All My Sons stands up to rereading both better and worse than some of the other plays that appeared in decade after World War II. It holds up better partly because Miller is dealing here with issues that have fresh relevance in the age of Haliburton and Enron: the evils of war profiteering and the moral duty of individuals to resist the soulless influence of American business. It holds up worse because Miller can use language as blunt instrument instead of a precision tool (as in Linda Loman’s famous defense of her husband, Willy: “ … attention must be paid”). That liability is perhaps more noticeable today than it was before videos and DVDs expanded the availability of more elegantly written plays from Hamlet to A Streetcar Named Desire.

I wondered if others shared my view, so I picked up Arthur Miller (Chelsea House, 148 pp., $35), part of the “Bloom’s BioCritiques” series edited and introduced by the distinguished critic Harold Bloom. (The volume on Miller in the “Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations” series is instead shown above.) Bloom says:

“Miller is by no means a bad writer, but he is scarcely an eloquent master of the language.”

Exactly. The appeal Miller’s plays — which remains high — comes from virtues other than unparalleled phrase-turning, including their craftsmanship, moral courage and passionate exploration of the intersection of social and psychological forces in American lives.

A few comments on the Sept. 26 preview: Kate Holmes (Ann Deever) is easy on the eyes and, given that producers must be strafing her with scripts for romantic comedies, has made a statement about how she wants to be perceived by taking on this role. John Lithgow (Joe Keller) gives an energetic performance in a tough role that requires him to undergo a transformation that, as Miller wrote it, isn’t fully believable. Patrick Wilson (Chris Keller) grows into his part. None of those actors can touch Dianne Wiest (Kate Keller), whose portrayal of a mother unable to accept the death of her son in World War II must be one of the best recent portrayals of mental illness in any medium.

All My Sons officially opens Oct. 16 on Broadway. You can read about that production and buy tickets at www.allmysonsonbroadway.com. You’ll find more on Arthur Miller (1915-2005) at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Miller.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept books from editors, publishers, authors or agents. It also does not accept free tickets to plays mentioned on the site.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 14, 2008

Chekhov’s Short Stories – Coming Soon to One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:59 pm
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“I have recently re-read much of Chekhov and it’s a humbling experience. I don’t even claim Chekhov as an influence because he influenced all of us. Like Shakespeare his writing shed the most perfect light — there’s no striving in it, no personality. Well, of course, wouldn’t I love to do that!”

Alice Munro

Writers tend to revere Anton Chekhov for his short stories. But others may know him better for his frequently revived plays, including Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. What do Chekhov’s stories offer to people who don’t hope to become the next Alice Munro, the Canadian titan of the form? One-Minute Book Reviews will consider the question soon.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 20, 2007

Tennessee Williams on Whether His Plays Were Autobiographical, Quote of the Day #20

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 9:37 am
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“My work is emotionally autobiographical. It has no relationship to the actual events of my life, but it reflects the emotional currents of my life.”

Tennessee Williams in an interview with Dotson Rader in 1981, published in The Paris Review Interviews: Writers at Work: Sixth Series (Viking, 1984). Edited by George Plimpton. Introduction by Frank Kermode.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

I’m posting this because I started the week by writing about the Pulitzer Prizes and wanted to wrap it up with some comments on them. Tennessee Williams makes an interesting postscript to my post on Famous Pulitzer Losers (April 16), a list of 10 classic novels that didn’t win the Pulitzer for fiction. Williams won two Pulitzer Prizes for drama, for A Streetcar Named Desire (1948) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). But he didn’t win for The Glass Menagerie in 1946, when the prize went to State of the Union by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay, better known for writing the book for The Sound of Music with music by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Anybody but me want to argue that The Glass Menagerie was as worthy of a Pulitzer as the two plays by Williams that got the prize? The play relates directly to today’s quote — it’s one of Williams’s most autobiographical, however you define “autobiographical.”

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 29, 2006

Noel Coward’s Short Stories

Who knew that one of the 20th century’s most entertaining playwrights also wrote wonderful short stories?

Noël Coward: Collected Short Stories. By Noël Coward. Preface by Martin Tickner. Methuen, 629 pp., $17.95, paperback.

You’re in for a treat if you know Noël Coward only the English playwright who wrote sparkling comedies of sexual jealousy like Blithe Spirit and Private Lives. Coward also wrote wonderful short stories that, at their best, have the droll wit and brisk pacing of his finest plays. All 20 appear in this welcome collection, published to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1899.

Part of what makes these stories so appealing is that they have a clear beginning, middle and end, whether they take place in London or New York or the South Seas. This alone would set them apart from many recent stories that are so oblique that reading them tends to resemble code-breaking.

But there’s more to Coward’s tales than their solid yet graceful architecture. Poet and scholar Robert Phillips has noted correctly that Coward was a “master of the shifting point of view, and managed the difficult balance between comedy and tragedy.” Coward also wrote about a kind of glamour that has almost disappeared from literary fiction. And although his stories vary in length and effectiveness, together they reflect a uniquely theatrical sensibility, with many involving actors or others in show business.

Most of Coward’s stories were written in the mid-20th century, but an eerie freshness surfaces in some of their themes, such as the cost of living in age drunk on celebrities. In one the best stories, “What Mad Pursuit?”, an English novelist is besieged by his hosts on an American tour. In “A Richer Dust,” an actor moves to Hollywood, hoping to retain some privacy: “But during the last few years this has become increasingly difficult owing to the misguided encouragement of a new form of social parasite, the gossip columnist.” This “assault upon the credulity of an entire nation” confuses people: “It would not be so were the information given checked and counter-checked and based on solid truth, but unfortunately it seldom is; consequently anybody who has the faintest claim to celebrity is likely to have his character, motives and private and public actions cheerfully misrepresented to an entire continent.” You might never know he was talking about people with names like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons instead of the editors of the National Enquirer or producers of Access Hollywood.

Best line: Many. One from “A Richer Dust”: “Adele was a conscientious young actress with good legs and little talent. In the farce she played the heroine’s best friend, who made a lot of pseudosophisticated wisecracks and was incapable of sitting down without crossing her legs ostentatiously and loosening her furs.”

Worst line: What’s the point of trying to pick the worst diamond at Tiffany’s?

Recommended if … you like stories by the masters Coward admired, such as O. Henry and Guy de Maupassant.

Published: 2000 (Methuen paperback).

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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