Monday, September 29, 2014

"Art": A Play that Succeeds In Spite of Itself

A screen in the lobby of City Lights Theater
shows a scene from the play Art.

The play called Art, by Yasmina Reza, was an enjoyable afternoon's entertainment, and a good value, and I wouldn't want to put anyone off of seeing it at the City Lights Theater, in downtown San Jose, but in the interests of fair reporting, I have to say that the play succeeds despite a ton of disadvantages.

In the first place, the subject—art values—is pretty esoteric. For me, as an art fan, art values is an important subject, but I have to wonder how many people would want to spend ninety minutes listening to three guys argue the subject. No women, no sex, no romance. No bombs, no plots, no action; one laughable attempt at a fist fight. The whole one-act play is an argument about whether an all-white canvas, which may or may not have a faint design in white on white, can have value. Are there really a lot of people interested in minimal art?

But it turns out that it is not really an argument about minimal art, but a pouty, ego-driven squabble. One guy buys a white painting for an exorbitant price. His buddy, and sometime mentor, thinks this was such a stupid move that he takes it personally. He conceives it as a rejection of himself and his values. Well, this is just plain annoying, and it motivates most of the action. The buyer, who is not so confident about his move anyway, takes offense at his sneering manner, and the fight is on. The character who saved it for me, largely because of expert acting, was the in-between guy, who tries to make peace. He is comically neurotic, and the actor expresses this with great physicality, gesturing and flailing. In the center he does a neurotic, self-engrossed, hysterical rant that completely won me over.

Yasmina Reza is a beautiful French woman, age 55, whose heritage is Jewish, Iranian, and Russian. She writes in French. Art is her first play; it premiered in 1994 in France. It later had a long run on Broadway, starring various famous actors including Alan Alda and Alfred Molina. The play won the Tony in 1998, and several other awards. It is said that actors love doing these roles, and that is one reason it is a favorite with regional theaters. The other is a play with only three actors and one set is cheap to produce.

It bothered me that the characters behaved so foolishly. I could hardly imagine one man telling another that his purchase was a piece of shit. Okay, well, men do sometimes have that jocular way of telling the truth, but then I would have expected the other guy to counter with some comparable insult, and then they would go off to have a beer. But I suppose the point of drama is to tease out the emotions and attitudes underlying nonchalant interactions. The acting in our local production was excellent, but I couldn't help wondering what it would be like with star-quality actors like Alan Alda. Perhaps there would have been more engagement, more urgency to the conflict.

It's remarkable that you can get a good theater experience for only $25, senior rate, Sunday matinee. The theater is small and well laid out so all seats are good. And in spite of everything, people seem to love this play. I'm glad about that.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Mrs. Dalloway: A Perfect Novel

The first time I read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, I felt like I was sleep-walking through it. There are no chapters; it just keeps going on and on. There is no plot. The narration flies from the thoughts of one character to another, and one of those characters is crazy, so it made me a little delirious sometimes. Nothing really drew me into the story, I just read it because I had decided to read it. But as soon as I was finished, I was eager to give it another go, and now, I think this novel is one of the great creations in fiction.

Virginia Woolf, like her contemporary James Joyce, was trying to invent a new type of novel in which the narration was driven not by events but by the thoughts of the characters. While events are apparently straight-forward, thoughts meander, and feelings bump up and down irrationally. Woolf limits the action to the events of one day on which Clarissa Dalloway, a political wife in London just after World War I, gives a party. When she goes out to buy flowers for the party, we hear her thoughts about everything and everyone she sees, and we hear the thoughts of the people she encounters as well. When she receives an unexpected visitor from India, a fellow who had wanted to marry her, named Peter Walsh, we watch her fluctuation of feelings, and his as well. When Peter leaves and goes for a walk in the park, the narration follows his impressions, but when he passes a madman, called Septimus Smith, who is freaking out, we are stuck in the thoughts of the crazy guy, which aren't all that easy to interpret. Then we have to find out the inner reactions of his wife, which are also pretty confused and upset.

So Woolf presents the minds of four completely different types of people: Clarissa, who is the perfect hostess; Peter, who has failed to realize his talent because of his penchant for impractical romances; Septimus, who is suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome; and Lucrezia, whose mind is confused by exposure to a madman. The game is to explore a wide range of characters, to express the nature of consciousness in many manifestations.

Woolf herself had battles with mental illness and eventually committed suicide. Septimus' story gave her the chance to depict her impression of the mental health community, which was not favorable. Once Septimus gives his life over to doctors, they make it so unbearable that they drive him to commit suicide. Septimus offs himself the day of Clarissa's party, causing the evil Sir William Bradshaw, a renowned psychiatrist, to be late for the party. That is how Woolf ties the two characters together. The perfect hostess hears the story of the suicide and takes it to heart. Even in the midst of a charming party, where everything is apparently all bright and friendly, she feels the cold attraction of death; but her buoyant spirit soon pushes her back into her role.

Clarissa is a very likable character. What I like best about her is that she observes everything closely and enjoys her sensory experience to the hilt. She also observes herself and recognizes her insincerity. She behaves warmly, even effusively, toward everyone, while recognizing in her heart that she doesn't actually feel that kindly toward everyone, and that she often has ulterior motives; she plays a delightful role, and she knows it. To be consistent in her role, she has to step back a little from true intimacy; she has to protect and hide her thoughts and feelings, which are not so consistent at all. Being the consummate hostess is both her strength and her weakness, and she knows it. What I like is that she feels satisfied with her life and herself.

I can't portray the ultimate attraction of this book for me—the individual sentences are remarkable, full of stunning imagery and subtle insights. I looked over the passages I had highlighted, but none of them work very well out of context; they don't stand alone. But it's the language that counts, for me. The novel is like a long poem, an ode to the complexity and richness of life.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

2014: A Good Summer for Movies

This summer just past, we saw a handful of movies that were good for the more mature and thoughtful viewers.

First up was "And So it Goes" with Diane Keaton and Michael Douglas. The title is lame, but I was interested in Michael Douglas' performance because I had recently seen him do a fabulous job as Liberace in an HBO special movie. The actors delivered great performances and the chemistry worked. The set was a duplex that was so quirky that it was like a character itself, what with banging screen doors, and all that. The plot was rather weak, but it made a satisfying illusion of love among the wrinklies. Diane Keaton, though she still has flair, has very textured skin, and Douglas is pretty wrinkled as well.

Woody Allen's new movie was "Magic in the Moonlight." Even though it's title has an attractive ring, there was something stilted about the pace of this work that kept it from having sizzle or bite—compared with the fabulous "Blue Jasmine," for instance. It wasn't until the next day that I realized how deeply felt it was. I believe it is a sort of valentine to Woody's wife, Soon-Yi, who is infamously over 30 years younger than he.

Colin Firth plays a magician who doesn't believe in magic. In fact, he makes a point to reveal frauds who claim to have ESP. His character is the epitome of the self-satisfied pompous ass, the kind of character who would be interpreted comically in a sit-com, all puffed-up and humphy. Colin Firth plays it to the hilt and with deadly sincerity. He spins out his skepticism with suave intellectualism. Firth plays an aspect of Woody that Allen, as an actor, cannot portray: the self-satisfied intellectual. Woody's acting role is the inept whiner, but in his heart, his cynicism about life is underpinned by wide reading and deep intellectualism. Suffice it to say, the pompous magician gets his comeuppance in the form of a young clairvoyant who convinces him of her powers. The part is played by Emma Stone, a young woman who has a style that reminds me of Mia Farrow, one of Woody's earliest stars. Despite her fair coloring, she stands for Soon-Yi, who, I believe, is the magic in Woody's life. The statement here is that there is some nebulous magic in life, not definable, not explicable, not rational, but very real, and it makes life worth living.

Another romance among the oldies was "Love is Strange." In this case, the oldies are a gay couple, played by John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, but the director's point is that gay love is pretty much the same thing as heterosexual love. Though the acting was faultless, for me it was the problem that both men are so large and bulky; their embraces looked very awkward. The story was excellent for its realism and the diversity of its characters. The script was thoughtful, if somewhat slow-paced. If this movie lacked anything, it was shape. It wasn't exactly a protest against the Catholic church's irrational attitude toward gay marriage; it wasn't exactly a documentary of the housing shortage in Manhattan; it wasn't exactly a character study or a romance. It was all that and more. Molina played a music teacher, and there was a lot of excellent music. Lithgow played an artist, and there was a lot of good art, as well as a good impression of the way an artist works. I'm not sure whether this shapelessness is a flaw; an entertainment is more dynamic if all the themes work together, but real life has a way of being a little of this and a little of that until it fizzles out, as it did in the movie.

The romantic couple in "My Old Lady," played by the divine Kevin Kline and the almost-plain Kristin Scott Thomas, are not quite oldies, but they are on the edge. They've had a lot of failures and they are running out of options. The story depends on a French real estate method that is so weird it is like an arbitrary plot mechanism, but I checked, and this system, called "viager," is really in use. In the viager system, an owner can sell their apartment, while retaining the right to live there for the rest of their life, sort of like a reverse mortgage. The buyer gets a low price on the apartment, but they must make payments to the owner for the rest of their life. If the owner dies young, the buyer gets a good deal; it's a form of gambling. So Kevin Kline inherits from his father a fabulous apartment in the heart of Paris, but it is occupied by the former owner, a 92-year-old woman, convincingly played by Maggie Smith (who is only 79).  In addition to the apartment, Kline's character also inherits regular payments to the old lady for the rest of her life. Her daughter, who is predictably hostile toward him at the outset, warms to him as the story of their parents' adultery, and the effect it had on each of them, is gradually revealed. This romance has satisfying shape: it is an analysis of the effects of adultery. For entertainment values, we get Paris: the apartment with its own garden, the Seine, the scenes. The magic of Paris is symbolized by a young woman singing by the Seine, letting her voice echo off the stone walls that line the river in the city; the first time I was there, an opera singer was crooning in a metro tunnel in the wee hours.

All these movies seemed to lack pizzazz. There were moments of boredom or slowness. Of course, we get a steady diet of violence, sex, and fast-paced cutting. If you can transcend the craving for action and surprise, these movies offered rich and relevant themes; they were satisfying to the viewer who is mature, in the best sense of the word.