Sunday, August 23, 2009


At the Mulford Barn Repertory Theater in East Hampton, on alternate evenings on August, three buffoons are trashing the greatest playwright who ever lived. Don't miss it!

Actually, it's three brilliant comic actors performing The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged -- a show invented by the Reduced Shakespeare Company in England and London's longest-running comedy ever. The premise is that rather than waste one's time sitting through 37 three-hour performances of tedious old-fashioned plays, who wouldn't jump at the chance to get the whole thing over with in just 87 hectic minutes? And so Lydia Franco-Hodges, Joseph De Sane and Gordon Gray take us for a roller-coaster ride through Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, all of the comedies (rolled into one), and of course Hamlet, which gets special treatment in Act II.

I promise to try not to reveal too many of the gags, bits, or pieces of shtick that make up this hilarious evening. There's a lot of improvisation on the part of the actors, and a lot of audience participation as well. Some of the humor is fairly crude and raunchy in spots, but nothing that your kids don't hear every day in middle school; the nine-year-old girl sitting next to me was in such convulsions of laughter that I feared for her health. Nor is any knowledge of Shakespeare a prerequisite for enjoying the show, unless that little girl was an unusually precocious graduate student in theater history. In fact, the show isn't only about Shakespeare; it's also a parody of modern American culture -- of our movies and TV program, the music on our iPods, our zany pop psychology and theories of self-improvement, and of theater and performance itself, particularly the narcissism, self-promotion and sense of entitlement that acting often promotes.

The Complete Works is, from beginning to end, pure farce, which is rather rare these days, now that Monty Python is gone. Many of the jokes are verbal (you'd be amazed how funny Macbeth becomes simply because it's performed with authentic Scottish accents), but most of it is good, old-fashioned physical slapstick: pratfalls, barfing, Keystone Kops-style chases, cross-dressing (wait till you see six-foot-four-inch Gordon Gray as Ophelia drowning herself). You'd swear there were at least six or seven actors leaping, prancing, fainting, dying, and mugging on the stage, in the field behind it (visible because the back doors slide open), on a ladder at the back of the house, or in your lap.

The glue that holds this inspired mess together is Kate Mueth, the director, who is reprising her triumphant production of last summer, with the same cast. Mueth knows theater and Shakespeare intimately, as do her players. It's their familarity with the real thing that makes their satire of it so dead-on. Mueth played Miranda in The Tempest at the Hamptons Shakespeare Festival; Franco-Hodges was an amazing Hermione in The Winter's Tale, and DeSane appeared in both Hamlet and Julius Caesar on the stage of the John Drew, so they come by their acting chops honestly where the Bard is concerned. There's a moment in the Barn when Gordon Gray stops spoofing and does one of Hamlet's soliloquies seriously, and the audience, shifting gears instantly, was very moved. For the most part, Mueth wisely keeps her hands off her actors, letting them dig for their own comic moments, and the result is a short, speed-of-light laugh-a-second roller coaster ride that will leave you gasping.

On the nights when Complete Works is dark, the same actors, plus Tina Jones, perform A.R. Gurney's 1995 comedy Sylvia, which is equally worthy of your attention. Sylvia is in some ways typical Gurney -- the funny, bittersweet trials and tribulations of middle-aged middle-class empty-nesters casting about for some new meaning in their lives -- except for the fact that Greg, the husband (Joe De Sane) deals with his midlife crisis by acquiring not a Porsche but a pet. Hiding out in Central Park one afternoon from his meaningless job, he picks up (or is picked up by) a golden retriever/poodle (Jones), and it's love at first sight -- though a problematic sort of love. Sylvia, good dog that she is, worships her new owner, but Greg's passion for her passeth all understanding. His wife and his job fade into annoying distractions as he begins to live for and through his dog.

The play's continuing joke, and it's a good one, is in the perfectly calibrated performance of Tina Jones as Sylvia. Dressed in sweater, jeans and knee pads (she spends a suitable amount of time on all fours), she makes a cuddly, adorable canine, but her rapport with her owner includes the ability to hold long, intense conversations with him about subjects of interest to her: cats, kibble, the well-endowed males at the dog run. Her heart-to-hearts with Greg are partly an extension of the rapport that dog owners and their pets share, carried to extremes, but as the play goes on Greg loses his grasp of the line between a beloved family pet and a new love interest. Wife Kate, a potentially thankless role into which Lydia Franco-Hodges breathes life, predictably comes to see Sylvia as a rival, and wages a relentless campaign to save her marriage by banishing her to the pound. At first, Greg's love affair with Sylvia (which never, thank God, crosses the line between petting and you-know-what) seems harmless and Kate curmudgeonly; by Act 2, when he's quit his job and is thinking of leaving Kate and moving into a studio with Sylvia, we realize there's some real pathology working itself out. In the play's most hilarious scene, Gordon Gray, as an ambiguously-gendered cross-dressing Viennese therapist, tries to make Greg own up to his obsession, and ends up counseling Kate to divorce her husband and shoot the dog. But all ends well; no animals are harmed during the performance of the play.

In the original production, the role of Sylvia was created by Sarah Jessica Parker, and her success in it probably had a lot to do with her being cast in her next project, a TV show called . . . oh, yes, Sex and the City. So Tina Jones has some big Blahniks to fill, and she has the paws to do it. Her doggy mannerisms -- the scratching, the prancing, the tail-wagging -- are dead on, but at the same time you're always aware (or at least I was) that she's a babe, and that when she stands up on her hind legs and slobbers all over Greg's face, or lies on her back so he can tickle her belly, there's something else going on besides human-animal bonding. (Sylvia's language is often R-rated, as well; maybe you should leave the nine-year-old home for this one.) In addition to the therapist, Gordon Gray plays a female friend of Kate's (he's the company's specialist in female impersonation) and the macho Tom, owner of the virile beast who deflowers Sylvia behind a bush in the park, and, as in Complete Works, the audience starts to laugh whenever he steps onto the stage. Joe De Sane makes Greg both a little geeky and very human, and Franco-Hodges manages the difficult feat of transforming herself from annoying to sympathetic with grace and humor.

So Mulford Barn Rep takes both ends of this double-header. It's not often that a concentration of talent like this company is so readily available. Summer stock in most places is an endless parade of Noel Coward minus the crackle of wit and old musicals minus the true voices. The East Hampton Historical Society (which administers Mulford Farm and parents Mulford Barn Rep) and Ms. Mueth deserve our thanks and our applause, and I'm sure both Shakespeare's ghost and PETA will be pleased as well.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Ten years ago, I was teaching an introductory composition course a branch of the City University of New York, which pretty much epitomizes urban public higher education. The student body was composed largely of immigrants or the children of immigrants: Russians whose families ran importing businesses in Brighton Beach, Koreans whose parents owned vegetable markets on Atlantic Avenue, black and Latino kids from tough ghetto neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, almost all of them the first members of their families to attend college. In English 1, when I asked them to write about their lives, what I often got was narratives of crime, with which, usually as victims but sometimes as perpetrators, they claimed to live on intimate terms. This was early in the Giuliani administration, before felony rates in New York began to decline dramatically, and the city’s parks, streets, tunnels and minority neighborhoods were still synonymous to most of America, and indeed the world, with lawlessness and peril. I think my kids wanted to impress me with the grittiness of their lives -- the crack houses, the drive-by shootings, the muggings and beatings that seemed to be woven into the fabrics of their young lives. And often I was at least semi-convinced, even by Jimmy Wang (not his real name) who wrote plausibly of his on-going attempt to resign from the Ghost Shadows, a Chinatown mob whose activities closely resembled those detailed on The Sopranos and who, he claimed, were determined to kill him rather than let him secede.

Most of the other students in the class accepted the law of the jungle with resignation and equanimity. The way of the world was opportunism, competition, the strong preying on the weak; human life was, as Thomas Hobbes put it, nasty, brutish and short; they couldn’t imagine a place where that wasn’t the rule. I could, however, having owned a small second home in Springs for twenty years. On an impulse, I typed up and distributed to the class three items from the Star’s police log for the current week, and asked them to compare them to three typical crime stories from the Post or the News and then to write an essay about what they felt they could conclude about the differences between Brooklyn and East Hampton based solely on this evidence.

The New York newspaper stories they came up with were predictably horrific: a child slain by a stray bullet, someone pushed by a stranger under the wheels of a subway train, the Abner Louima torture case which was then in the headlines. These played off nicely against the items from the Star, which I had chosen with some care. The first reported that after the girlfriend of a Springs man had left him, her mother had repeatedly telephoned him, “threatening and yelling.” The second recorded the fact that for-sale signs kept disappearing from a property on Fairlawn Drive in Montauk. The third read, in its entirety,

An Egypt Lane resident called police Saturday afternoon to turn in a group of boys playing football on the lawn in front of Hook Mill. They were not breaking any law, however, and police declined to interrupt the game.

The results were illuminating. Some of the students had heard of the Hamptons, but only as a playground for the rich and celebrated; they never imagined that ordinary life went on there, and certainly not life as ordinary as the police log suggested. The were baffled both by the innocuousness of criminal activity on Eastern Long Island and by the fact that anyone would take the time to read about such trivial events. In the classroom discussion that followed the assignment, some accused me of having manufactured the news -- of foisting on them an imaginary Utopia of middle-class white homeowners living lives of stultifying if harmonious security. If the events had actually happened, they were cause for scorn: you call that “crime”? Hector, both outraged and amused, couldn’t get over the wimpiness of a grown man calling the cops because an old lady had yelled at him over the phone. “What is point of taking for-sale sign?” demanded Sergei. “Is prank? Act of revenge? Why not blow up car or set fire to house?” And as to the touch-football caper, the whole class, even the girls, threw up their hands and rolled their eyes. Boys who broke no windows, trespassed on no one’s property, set off no fireworks, stole nothing, sassed no one, merely whiled away an afternoon throwing a football around -- and some guy dials 911? What lesson, asked Jamal, were those kids being taught? If they got rousted for playing sports, what happened when they did things that were really fun, like hanging out in parks and parking lots all night, smoking weed and listening to rap?

I was forced to admit that I had to an extent misrepresented East Hampton, by deliberately not choosing reports of higher crimes and misdemeanors (though in truth, the worst offenses recorded that week were two obscene phone calls made to identical twins and a license plate stolen and found the next day by the side of the road). Yes, I confessed, from time to time bad stuff happened out there -- murder, arson, theft -- as it did everywhere else, but no one was going to nickname the Town Police Department “Fort Apache,” like that fabled besieged precinct in the Bronx. And I assured them that East Hampton was not a fantasy oasis of peace and amity, but closer to the norm of American life, which was at that time still lived more in small towns than urban jungles.

I no longer teach at Brooklyn College, so I can’t really judge how the perceptions of its students about their city and human behavior have changed, and what they would make of the Star’s crime beat these days, which features (along with occasional horrific stories like the murder of a wife by her husband) reports of growing ethnic friction on the East End, which make it sound a lot more like the world in which my students lived. And the more perceptive of them might point to the corresponding gentrification of some of those tough New York neighborhoods -- Harlem and Red Hook and even Midwood, where the college is located. Midwood in the 1960’s was largely a middle-class Jewish and Italian neighborhood; its public high school graduates went to the nation’s top colleges. Then began “white flight,” and by the 70’s it had become a black ghetto; I remember a number of gun incidents at Midwood High, and it wasn’t safe to park your car on the street even in daytime. Now Midwood is being re-colonized by white middle-class home buyers who can’t afford Manhattan, and there are animosities between these newcomers and the people they’re displacing.

What does it all add up to? That two communities which ten years ago seemed like polar opposites are becoming more and more alike -- the sleepy hamlet not so sleepy, the mean streets not so mean -- so that ten years from now, if the trend continues, only topography and architecture will distinguish them? The immigration debate is as alive here as it is there; will Springs become the new Crown Heights? I don’t know what it all means, but it occurs to me that I might have planted a seed by assigning that paper: maybe Jimmy Wang decided that East Hampton might be a good place to start over, change his name, open a plant nursery or landscaping business.