Month: January 2016

Drama Review – Proof by David Auburn

Someone postulated that I should read this play. With this theorem in mind, I set out to prove it. After reasoning my way through the text, I came up with the following axiom: David Auburn’s play Proof is a work of genius that readers can appreciate on many levels. As I always strive to write professional reviews, allow me to show the work that went into my proof.

Given: David Auburn wrote Proof.

Prove: Proof showed what the best playwrights can do with complex subject matter.

Statement: Proof possessed many literary techniques that lesser playwrights could debase into banality. David Auburn crafted them with the proficiency of a conductor orchestrating a symphony.

Reason: Even in the opening pages, the dialog made me uncomfortable. The story began as Catherine’s father presented her with a bottle of champagne. How to write this delicately? This party wasn’t as upbeat or as festive as the one Harold Pinter described in The Birthday Party. (Yes, that’s saying something.) The tension in this conversation between Catherine and her father jarred me. Here’s an excerpt.

Robert: A girl who’s drinking from the bottle shouldn’t complain. Don’t guzzle it. It’s an elegant beverage. Sip.

Catherine: (Offering the bottle) Do you-

Robert: No. Go ahead.

Catherine: You sure?

Robert: Yeah. It’s your birthday.

Catherine: Happy Birthday to me.

Robert: What are you going to do on your birthday?

Catherine: Drink this. Have some.

Robert: No. I hope you’re not spending your birthday alone.

Catherine: I’m not alone.

Robert: I don’t count.

Catherine: Why not?

Robert: I’m your old man. Go out with some friends.

Catherine: Right.

Robert: Your friends aren’t taking you out?

Catherine: Because in order to for your friends to take you out you generally have to have friends.

Robert: (Dismissive) Oh-

Catherine: It’s funny how that works. (Page 7)

I almost had to close the book and walk away from it. The tension made me that uncomfortable.

Statement: Auburn’s proficient use of foreshadowing set a new standard for it.

Reason: I won’t give away spoilers. I will comment that on several occasions in the text, seemingly innocent lines or obscure observations became clever harbingers of things to come. In fact, a veiled one appeared in the lines I quoted above. I’d hope people reading Proof for the first time experience the same astonishment that I did. It made the story that much more engaging.

Statement: In the midst of a complex plot, the playwright still managed to connect with his audience on an emotional level.

Reason: This story had some parallels with the book and film A Beautiful Mind. Robert was a brilliant mathematician with schizophrenia. Unlike John Nash, Robert’s disorder rendered him incompetent and unable to practice his craft: for a time. Then his mental health improved. He expressed great optimism about his being “back in the game” in the following exchange with Catherine. She, being the dutiful daughter, had sacrificed her personal happiness to take care of him. This discussion took place after he insisted Catherine read a “major result” for which he’d just written a proof.

Catherine: Dad. Let’s go inside.

Robert: The gaps might make it hard to follow. We can talk it through.

Catherine: You’re cold. Let’s go in.

Robert: Maybe we could work on this together. This might be a great place to start. What about it? What do you think? Let’s talk it through.

Catherine: Not now. I’m cold too. It’s really freezing out here. Let’s go inside.

Robert: I’m telling you it’s stifling in there, goddamn it. The radiators. Look, read out the first couple of lines. That’s how we start: you read, and we go line by line, out loud, through the argument. See if there’s a better way, a shorter way. Let’s collaborate.

Catherine: No. Come on.

Robert: I’ve been waiting years for this. This is something I want to do. Come on, let’s do some work together.

Catherine: We can’t do it out here. It’s freezing cold. I’m taking you in.

Robert: Not until we talk about the proof.

Catherine: No.

Robert: Goddamnit, Catherine, open the goddamn book and read me the lines.

(Beat. Catherine opens the book. She reads slowly without inflection.)

Catherine: “Let X equal the quantities of all quantities of X. Let X equal the cold. It is cold in December. The months of cold equal November through February. There are four months of cold and four of heat leaving four months of indeterminate temperature….” (Pages 73 – 74)

I’m not an emotional person. When I read Catherine’s recitation of the “proof” I could almost feel my heart breaking in my chest. Kudos to the playwright on crafting this scene so well.

Statement: Proof showed what the best playwrights can do with complex subject matter.

Reason: The story contained many plot twists. They revolved around the personalities of intricate characters. The playwright also managed to work in standard literary techniques and apply them brilliantly. In acknowledgement of these efforts, Proof received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2001.

Q. E. D.


Lecture Review – Dr. Richard Veit: “Stranger Stop and Cast and Eye: 400 Years of New Jersey Cemetery Evolution and Gravestone Design”

Dr. Richard Veit is an atypical historian. While most would discourage societies from “burying the past”, he wants them to do a lot of it. The professor is an anthropologist with a unique field of expertise. Dr. Veit studies the history of cemetery evolution and gravestone design. He unearthed this topic at the Historical Society of Moorestown on January 28, 2016.

This lecture was part of the Historical Society’s New Jersey History Speaks Speaker Series. While many history talks take place in lecture halls or library conference rooms, this one occurred in the living room of an historic home. I enjoyed the cozy environment at Smith-Cadbury Mansion. As I arrived early the Society’s President, Lenny Wagner, provided guests with a brief history of the home, itself. In a sense, the organization treated me to two informative discussions in one evening. (Full Disclosure: I’ve been a member of the Historical Society of Moorestown since 2006.)

Dr. Veit is currently Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University. His knowledge of New Jersey cemeteries and gravestones proved these aren’t ceremonial positions. He entertained the group with an enlightening disquisition on the subject. It may seem strange to use a word such as entertained to describe an historical lecture on a topic so close to death, but that’s the right one. The professor presented material that could have been dry and dreary, in a witty and affable fashion.

The breadth of the lecture impressed me. Aside from elucidating 400 years of history, Dr. Veit’s comments covered the entire state. He explained that different parts of New Jersey had gravestone designs endemic to their areas. Of interest to residents of South Jersey he discussed the “Philadelphia influence” during the Colonial Era. This entailed the importing of marble from Pennsylvania for tombstones. In northern parts of the state, slate imported from New England became vogue.

I knew that grave markers benefited genealogists. My Great-Grandfather Mike Stephany’s showed me which unit he served in during the First World War. Dr. Veit displayed phots of some that contained much more detail that that. He jokingly referred to a few of them as a “resume”. Irish markers tended to describe where the deceased grew up in Ireland, when they arrived in the United States, when they married, how many children they had, etc. That would be a monumental source of information for anyone researching his/ her family history.

I learned something I never would’ve imagined. Tombstones served as early sources of advertising. Carvers would inscribe their names on the markers they chiseled. This may seem disturbing to modern sensibilities, but with the absence of photography and mass marketing, people did what they could to ensue name recognition.

In the midst of all these entertaining facts, the professor slyly snuck in some serious historical lessons. He explained how graveyards are a reflection of their historical times. During the Colonial Era, few markers contained crosses. People living in that time viewed them as a “Catholic” influence. While ubiquitous today, some 250 years ago crosses only appeared on some French graves.

The part of the talk that amused me the most concerned the mausoleums. They became very fashionable resting places for captains of industry around the dawn of the 20th Century; predominantly in urban areas. Dr. Veit displayed pictures of one he visited. He described it as having room for the deceased “and about thirty of his closest friends.” As the professor visited during the Holiday Season, the tomb contained multiple Christmas Trees and wreaths inside. To my eyes the ambiance and marble floors made it appear more like a mall than a burial place.

Dr. Veit began his remarks by calling cemeteries, “great sources of information.” Just how much information one can discover there amazed me. The amount of information the speaker possessed impressed me even more. I enjoyed the professor’s engaging jocularity and erudition. I’d welcome the opportunity to see him again. I just hope that time comes before he’s studying my tombstone.

Weather Review – Winter Storm Jonas

            In the wintertime

            When all the leaves are brown

            And the wind blows…

Oh, it blows alright; to velocities in excess of 30 MPH this afternoon. While the snow poured into every orifice in my body, these lyrics from the Steve Miller Band’s “In the Wintertime” echoed through my ears in union with the howling winds that rustled the barren branches. “Hear me calling”: WHAT HAPPENED TO THE 75 DEGREE WEATHER WE HAD OVER CHRISTMAS!?

While I vented my usual complaints about cold weather, Winter Storm Jonas failed to exceed them. I found it fitting that this storm shared the same name as former Angolan Freedom Fighter General Jonas Savimbi. Like the general, this storm generated a lot of hype, caused a great expense and in the end, led to a disappointing outcome.

As with any prospective winter storm, the barrage of media hype was legion. For days I’d been reading winter storm warnings, seguing into blizzard warnings and, inevitably, the blizzard watches. Upon first hearing of “Winter Storm Jonas” on Wednesday, I opted to go grocery shopping that evening.

To be fair to the local news anchors, at this early stage they were still in the advent of inspiring terror in the general populace. While the upcoming “white apocalypse” was still three days away, I found the store crowded. I’d arrived before 5:00 PM and encountered more people than I’d expected, but not so many that it made me claustrophobic. I found some patrons hoarding the necessities such as bread, milk and wine; make that lots, and lots of wine. I still purchased all the products I normally do during the course of my usual weekly grocery shopping.

In the lead-up to the storm I witnessed paltry panic among the populace. With little notice the grocery store prepared well for the pending weather event. If the purpose of local media is to terrorize people with the weather, does this sound like they did their jobs?

In addition, I managed to procure a few additional loaves of bread and containers of milk. During the apex of the storm on Saturday I placed an advertisement on the internet. I wrote that I understood some people may have lacked such things. I offered to sell my surplus for the generous sum of nineteen ninety-five. That’s $1,995.00. As the storm intensified I realized I’d placed the decimal in the wrong place. I corrected my posting to correctly read $19,950.00. During the height of the so called “storm of the century”, not one person replied to my offer.

Perhaps the biggest adversity accompanying a snow storm is the shoveling. I’d read various news reports stating that the snow would begin as the light and fluffy variety and then combine with layers of ice. The latter would cause it to become, and I quote, “very heavy”. Perhaps all those protein shakes I’ve been drinking are really paying off, because I didn’t have any trouble shoveling. I managed to move about 90 square feet of snow in one hour.

In addition, even with a State of Emergency in effect during a snow storm, one always sees several people taking their chances on the slick roads. This afternoon, I witnessed a steady flow of vehicles on the street in front of my home. To be fair to Winter Storm Jonas, they were pick-up trucks and SUVs, but still: this had to be the safest “State of Emergency” in New Jersey’s history.

I’d also been led to anticipate “zero visibility”. I expected that I’d see so much of the color white that I’d feel like an audience member at a GOP rally. Not so. I can’t write that the lack of it disappointed me. The people living behind me travelled during the Holiday Season. They turned on their winter lights this evening. I’m enjoying the effect they have reflecting off the newly fallen snow.

I’ve lived in the Philadelphia area my entire life and experienced several natural disasters. Hurricanes, snowstorms and even minor earthquakes have affected the region. Winter Storm Jonas will not rank among them. In the lead-up to today, I’d anticipated a catastrophe of historical proportions. Let me politely write that Winter Storm Jonas didn’t make me any more enthusiastic about global warming.

Drama Review – Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies

What better topic to use for a lachrymose tale of tragedy than marital problems? Donald Margulies served up a chilling meditation on just that in his 2000 Pulitzer Prize winning drama Dinner with Friends. This play showed how two pairs of friends coped (or struggled to) with the disintegration of one of the couple’s marriages. The atrophy of the one gave the remaining couple doubts about the state of their own union.

This play moved me. Gabe and Karen were the “perfect” couple struggling with doubts about their marriage. Following that, they discovered their friends Tom and Beth decided to divorce. It led to a deep introspection of their situation. Afterwards, then they had to listen to them explain how their lives improved without each other.

The realism in Dinner with Friends impressed me. Beth lived a bohemian life style. I thought her behavior and dialog believable for that type of person. All the dramatis personae conducted themselves like I’d imagine people in their situation. I felt Gabe’s and Karen’s shock when Beth explained that she and Tom separated. Karen’s reaction to the reason for the breakup also came across as reasonable. As did her callous behavior towards Tom. The playwright also presented the latter’s anger towards his estranged wife in a believable fashion. “Don’t underestimate rage; rage can be an amazing aphrodisiac,” Tom said. (Page 38)

In keeping with the realism, the dialog didn’t contain any great lyrical flourishes. The playwright still worked in some memorable lines.

Karen: I spent the first twenty years doing whatever the hell I could do to get away from my family and my second twenty years doing everything I could to cobble together a family of my own. I thought if I could choose my family this time, if I could make my friends my family…

Beth: Congratulations. The family you’ve chosen is as f—-d-up and fallible as the one you were born into. (Page 68)

            Here are Gabe’s thoughts on marriage in light of Beth’s and Tom’s break-up.

Gabe: (Looks at him; a beat): I guess, I mean, I thought we were in this together. You know, for life.

Tom: Isn’t that just another way of saying misery loves company? (Page 77)

Here’s an exchange between Karen and Beth. This took place after Beth mentioned she had a new boyfriend.

Karen: You didn’t want to be alone for a while? You haven’t been alone in a dozen years.

Beth: I’ve always been alone, don’t you see? I spent my marriage alone. (Page 65)

That’s a harsh observation.

I don’t normally comment on this, but I liked the book’s cover. It summed up the play’s content non-verbally. It showed a dinner plate flanked by a knife and a fork. A large crack extended from the top of the dish all the way to the bottom. I found that very clever.

Dinner with Friends reminded me of another Pulitzer Prize Winning Drama, Rabbit Hole. In David Lindsay-Abaire’s work, a husband and wife struggle to keep their marriage together following the death of their four year old son. Donald Margulies’ portrayal of marital disintegration was comparable to a death. As in Rabbit Hole, the ending left more questions than answers.

Neil Simon’s Rumors Presented by Burlington County Footlighters

I heard a rumor that Burlington County Footlighters were putting on a show that featured a series of misunderstandings, slapstick humor and numerous comedic antics. Much to my relief they didn’t present a stage rendition of a Three’s Company episode. On Friday night I experienced the pleasure of attending the opening night showing of Neil Simon’s Rumors directed by Scott Angehr.

The title served as a good summation of this show’s content.  Upon arriving for a dinner party hosted by the Deputy Mayor of New York and his wife, guests Ken Gorman (Played by Gary Werner) and Chris Gorman (played by Corinne Hower-Greene) discovered him bleeding while his wife and servants were missing. They suspected he attempted suicide. They then called a doctor. When Chris got him on the phone, Ken then told her to say everything was fine. It turned out the Deputy Mayor only shot off part of his earlobe. Ken thought it best to discover what happened before contacting anyone else. He didn’t want his friend to get involved in a scandal.

Following that, more guests started arriving. Lenny Ganz (played by Paul Sollimo) and Claire Ganz (Megan Shafranski) entered the house. Ken and Chris used a series of stories to explain why the Deputy Mayor, his wife and the servants weren’t at the party. After they discovered the truth, more guests showed up. The four of them decided not to tell the new arrivals, Ernie Cusack (Greg Northram) and Cookie Cusack (Valerie Brothers), what had happened. This turned in to quite a challenge as Mr. Cusack worked as a psychoanalyst.

Gossip swirled around the characters’ romantic peccadillos. That led to even more misunderstandings. Are you following the plot at all? Well, it doesn’t matter. What is important is that all these antics made for an enjoyable evening of comedic mishaps from a series of quirky characters played by talented thespians.

The true highlight of the evening took place in the interplay between Glenn Cooper (played by Dan Brothers) and his wife Cassie (played by the omni-talented Rachel Comenzo). In the past I’ve watched Mr. Brothers perform serious dramatic roles. Most recently I saw him play the grief-stricken father in Footlighters’ production of Rabbit Hole. I’ve also attended several performances featuring Ms. Comenzo. She’s a gifted actress, but I’ve always thought her a stronger singer and dancer. When I read the cast list, it interested me to see how the two of them would play a married couple in a comedy. They both delivered performances well in excess of my expectations.

There’s an old adage about Hell having no fury like a woman scorned. Ms. Comenzo showed that Humorous Heaven has a special place for one, too. She did a phenomenal job of balancing anger and comedy in her opening argument with Mr. Brothers. I liked the way she could raise her voice in the context of an emotional conversation while still speaking clearly. Following this outburst, she admired herself in the mirror. These mannerisms provided great insight into the character.

Mr. Brothers did a fantastic job playing the “innocent” husband in the face of his wife’s accusations. In addition, he handled the physical comedy very well. In the hands of most performers slapstick becomes caricature. Mr. Brothers demonstrated that he isn’t “most performers.” He convincingly handled falling down after getting hit by a door. The most memorable moment of his performance occurred after his wife assaulted him with a phone. Mr. Brothers has a natural bass voice. With cotton stuffed up his nose he spoke in a high-pitched nasal squeal. Like his counterpart, he talked very clearly.

Proficiency at physical comedy must run in the family. Mr. Brother’s real-life wife, Valerie Brothers, got in on the act in her role as Cookie Cusack. Her character suffered from back problems that prevented her from both “walking” and “sitting”.  The audience roared as she made her way across the stage on her hands and feet with her body at a 90 degree angle. In order to do that she first had to lift herself out of a chair using only her upper body.

As readers if this blog are aware, in the past I’ve been attacked for making “troubling” and “disturbing” comments about female costuming. During this show I did have an observation about one of the actress’ attire. In the interest of artistic integrity I’m going to state it.

Corrine Hower-Greene played Chris Gorman, very well. From the trembling voice, the facial expressions and stumbling around the stage with a wine bottle she displayed the appropriate mannerisms of a neurotic woman. I thought some of her attire too distracting, though. While the plain black evening gown she wore contrasted well with the solid white background, my eyes kept getting drawn to her shoes. I agree that glittery silver shoes would be appropriate attire for a dinner party. I could imagine her character wearing them to such an occasion. For me, they stood out and kept diverting my attention. With the exception of Valerie Brothers, whose character wore a white dress, all the other actors wore dark colored shoes. As I wrote, Ms. Hower-Green is an exceptional performer with great stage presence. Audiences should be watching her performance, not staring at her shoes.

The antics and misunderstandings continued until the final curtain. The surprise ending left open the possibility of a sequel. If someone writes one, let’s hope the cast of Burlington County Footlighters’ production is available. They had such fantastic chemistry working together that I’d welcome the opportunity to see them reprise these roles. And that’s a fact, not a rumor.

The Detritus of Christmas Passed

I’ve always found it ironic that the best time of year is followed by the worst time of year. My drive to work reinforced my belief. On the way I passed numerous Christmas Trees thrown out at various curbs. Several inflatable Santa Clauses lay in flat heaps on people’s front lawns. Instead of the radio greeting me with cherry, upbeat Holiday tunes, I listened to the same banal songs that saturated the airways prior to Thanksgiving.

My drive home wasn’t much better. A cold, blustery wind made me crank my heater for the first time this season. Instead of an array of Christmas lights, a somber twilight illuminated my way home. Yes, Christmas 2015 is formally over.

Ever since my childhood, I always loathed the end of the Holiday Season. In my youth, I figured that came from having to return to school. The carefree days of sleeping late and playing with the toys Santa brought me had come to an end. The time to get back to work had come. Now I wonder if that was the real reason.

As I got older I realized that Christmas is the most heavily advertised event on the planet. I remember back in the 1990s while shopping for my parents’ anniversary, I noticed Christmas displays in the mall. Since my Mom and Dad were married on October 10th, I couldn’t believe it. How could a store be getting ready for the Holidays prior to Thanksgiving?

Flash forward twenty some years. Now stores get ready for the Holidays around Labor Day. I watched television commercials targeting Christmas shoppers before Football season began this year.

While growing up in the 1970s I remember one radio station would play nothing but Christmas music from December 24th through January 1st. Now, several play nothing but Holiday music from the Monday before Thanksgiving until Christmas Day! That’s a solid month!

And then on December 26th, it’s all over. All the Christmas music disappears from the airways. Stores begin removing their displays. I remember a few years ago while at a café on New Year’s Day, I watched as the staff took down the Holiday decorations and put away the Christmas Tree. I felt like a soldier watching Old Glory descend the flagpole.

It’s not that I’m depressed Christmas is over; it’s that I feel like I’ve entered another world. For several months, everything one sees reminds one that Christmas is coming. In the span of a few days, all of that disappears. I remember a March visit to the café I mentioned earlier. Some of the baristas started singing:

           Oh, by gosh, by golly

            It’s time for mistletoe and holly.

            They laughed saying how weird it was not to hear that song every few minutes.

I also miss all the fun stuff leading up to the Christmas Season. For those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, the heat and humidity leading up to Labor Day gives way to cool autumn days. After that a lot of fun Halloween activities take place. They’re followed by Thanksgiving. All this time, signs of Christmas become apparent, leading up to the big day itself.

Right now, we’re looking at three months of lousy weather. I’ve heard some refer to this period in the Northeastern U. S. as “the Dark Ages.” We’ve got bitter, frigid cold with the ever present possibility of snow and ice. It’s ironic that seasonal tunes like “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “It’s a Marshmallow World in the Winter” no longer come over the airwaves.

It may not seem like it now, but the detritus of Christmas 2015 will give way to spring’s blooming flowers. Then again, every year the Season seems to start earlier and earlier. Who knows? The way things are going, 2016’s Black Friday deals may be in full swing before Easter.