I Save Playbills–Again

           My season’s Playbills include productions that can’t really be characterized as plays, including a multi-disciplinary performance by Meredith Monk at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I went to a couple magic shows—one that was in the form of a traditional magic show, but another one, In and Of Itself, that tried to be different. Derek DelGaudio did the requisite illusions, but something more was attempted—a show about identity. DelGaudio told stories and did tricks related to identity. He was not a new Spalding Gray but somehow it all worked resulting in an engaged and excited audience congregating outside the door when the performance ended proclaiming that they knew how he had done the quite amazing finale.

Jos Houben’s performance also was not a play in the classical sense of the term. The promos called him a mime and a clown. In the first part of the show, he was mime-like as he and Marcello Magni put on an absurdist farce with almost no words. But after the intermission, Houben became a lecturer as he presented The Art of Laughter. The title itself was too sweeping. Not all laughter was explored, but laughter from physical comedy was.

Houben, a Belgian native who studied at the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris (I did not know of that school before, but from its prominent mention in the Playbill bios, I gathered it was very important), explored nuances of physical humor. He told us that watching a person trip was not inherently funny. He walked and tripped and no laughter. He then said a trip followed by embarrassed glances to see who had seen it was funny. Trip, surreptitious looks, laughter. He then did variations of trips, saying in advance—and correctly–how the laughter would vary. On one level, this was amazing because it seemed to violate the fundamental law of comedy—don’t explain a joke. Houben, however, would tell us what he was going to do and tell us whether we would laugh or not. Even when we were told we were going to laugh, we still did. As the hour went on, I found it amazing for another reason. His exposition had come from a close study of the physical movements of people and their reactions to some quite common situations. From this he had distilled the funny from the nonfunny. All of us had seen what Houben had, but few of us had really seen them as he had. The Art of Laughter not only taught me something about laughter, it also taught me something about seeing.

What I have seen this season is only a fraction of the productions in New York this year. There are literally hundreds of plays most weeks, many more than the number of movies showing in the multiplexes around the country. I don’t pretend to understand the finances of either movies or plays, but many plays will be deemed successful in New York if they run for a month drawing audiences that fill their theaters. For Broadway, that may require thousands nightly, but for many productions that could mean three hundred or only seventy-five. The result is that plays can be quirky, daring, bizarre, or classical and still find enough audience members to be successful.  This makes the New York theater(re) scene a blessing to the likes of me.

I Save Playbills–Again

Perhaps if I looked at my saved Playbills regularly, I might make more discoveries like I did recently on one of those few occasions when I pulled one out at random. I have little to no recollection of many of the plays I have seen, especially when they are from decades ago, but neither do I recall most of the books I have read a year or two ago, much less those from a generation back. This was an exception. Although the Playbill indicated attendance at a play in 1981, I did remember going to it. Who can forget seeing James Earl Jones as Othello? And then there was Christopher Plummer as Iago. I skimmed the cast, and to my surprise I had seen Kelsey Grammer as Casio. I had no idea who Grammer was in 1981, and his performance in Othello did not stay with me. But the Playbill indicated that I had indeed seen him, and, of course, since then I have tried to work into conversations that I saw “Frazier” in a Shakesperean play even before I had seen him in Cheers.

I look over a season’s Playbills before I move them to the top shelf of a bookcase. Looking over this year’s batch, I am struck by the diversity of what is offered in New York. I saw The Play That Goes Wrong, which came from London and has run on Broadway for a while. It was silly—no message—but it was laugh-out-loud funny. I saw a number of plays at the Roundabout Theatre Company, a preeminent theatrical institution, that ranged from dreadful to good to the quite interesting The Last Match, about fading and rising tennis stars.

I saw a couple plays at the Manhattan Theatre Club, another preeminent theatrical institution, including the provocative The Children, written by Lucy Kirkwood. An older woman shows up at a lonely British seaside cottage. She is not there as we might first think to renew an old love affair but because a nearby nuclear powerplant has had a disastrous meltdown. The three who meet there are physicists who generations ago helped build the plant. This is a play about righting mistakes, duty, and sacrifice. What is our obligation to fix our failures? What is our duty to future generations to leave a cleaner world?

I saw a couple plays at the The Public Theater—yes, in keeping with its populist roots, this preeminent theatrical institution spells it “theater” not the more pretentious “theatre.”  The plays I saw there rated B+s.

I had looked forward to seeing Junk because I had admired Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, which won the Pulitzer a few years back. This play about the junk bond crisis was good, but I felt somehow that it did not rise to a higher level. I so admire good reviewers who can articulate what sometimes I only feel. They can explain why a play is excellent or thrilling or not so good.

I felt a similar a similar disappointment in the play In Love with the Arrow Collar Man, which was at an Off-Off Broadway theater. (This is neither a pejorative nor a geographical term. An Off-Broadway house has from 100 to 499 seats, while an Off-Off-Broadway theater has fewer than 100.) The play was about Joe Leyendecker, the country’s foremost illustrator until Norman Rockwell, part of Leyendecker’s circle, nudged him from that pedestal; Frank Leyendecker, a gay artist like his brother; and Charles Beach, Joe’s model for the Arrow collar ads and his lover. The play portrayed interesting lives in complicated times, and it kept my attention, but there was something missing. I could say that the play lacked a necessary depth or did not have sufficient polish, but I don’t have the ability to articulate exactly what I mean by those clichés.

Some of the plays were plotless, or at least I can’t describe the plot. Ballyturk, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, (a preeminent institution that does not grapple with “theater” versus “theatre”) falls into that category. Two brothers seem locked in a hermetically sealed world, but there is much movement, fast speech, and what seems to be a periodic radio soap opera. I am not sure what it was about—perhaps the meaning or the meaninglessness of life. But I laughed and was amazed at many of the word images that kept flying by as well as the physical abilities of the two as well as the sultriness and voice of the third character when she appeared. I found it hard to describe, but it was assuredly out of the ordinary.

(Concluded on June 15)

I Save Playbills (concluded)

Rice also gave a more prosaic example than Shakespeare of how a staged play can be more powerful than just reading. He tells of how as a youth he saw Sherlock Holmes. Professor Moriarty is about to trap Holmes in a room, when Holmes douses the light. Moriarty tells his henchmen to follow the lit cigar Holmes has been smoking. When the lights are switched back on, Holmes has escaped. He had put the cigar on the sill of one window and escaped out the other. “It may all sound rather ridiculous, but it would be impossible to exaggerate the effect it had upon the audience. Shivers and exclamations of apprehension were followed by relief that expressed itself in delighted laughter and sustained applause. I saw the play [decades ago], . . . but I shall never forget . . . the excitement of that scene.”

I, too, remember a collection of moments that can only occur in the theater. As with Rice, they have occurred in plays both sublime and the humble, and one was also in Macbeth. Patrick Stewart was starring, and even though I have read and seen the play several times, Stewart’s portrayal made me emit a stunned gasp when Macbeth first sees Banquo’s ghost. The theater had taken my breath away. (Patrick Stewart, as well as Ben Kingsley, were in Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night Dream that so affected me half a lifetime ago, but I remember neither from that production.)

One memorable moment was in a play in a small theater with a small audience. I remember nothing about the play other than a few moments by an actor whose name I no longer know, but he once did the Dunkin’ Donuts ads where he was obsessed with getting up early to make fresh doughnuts. In this play he did a monolog on hammer toes that was funny and mournful and touching not only through his voice but also through his face and shoulders and belly.

I remember Scapino with Jim Dale. (Carol Channing was in the audience, and she sat, as Carol Channing ought, with wide eyes and her mouth open during the entire performance—that was at the uptown Circle in the Square Theater where audience members can see each other—with a bevy of good looking men around her.) A running gag throughout the play was that any character exiting the stage would say “Ciao!” Then everyone on stage, seriatim, would say “Ciao!” As intended, this chorus started to get laughs, even though I doubted it would have seemed funny on the printed page. The magical moment came after this was done for the dozenth time. After the litany of “Ciao”, the sweetest “Ciao” you ever heard came from the front row of the audience. It was from the sweetest-looking six-year-old, beaming boy you ever saw (this was a matinee). The cast could not help themselves; they struggled not to, but they broke up in laughter, and we in the audience broke up, too, laughing a prolonged and uproarious thank-you to the entire enterprise knowing that we had seen something unique.

There have been many more special moments since I started going to plays, and there have been many special productions. I now go to the theater a couple dozen times a year, and something important or magical or special does not always happen, but it happens often enough that I continue going. And for this I thank Alan Downer’s course and Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Without both of those experience, I might never have gone to the theater as much as I have. I would have missed much.

I Save Playbills

I save Playbills, those little magazines you get when attending the theater.  At the performance’s conclusion, if I can’t find mine, I feel a bit unsettled and try to find a discarded one. When I get home, I stack the Playbills on a shelf of the table next to my morning reading chair. They amass there for what I consider a season—from September until the following summer. Then I move them to a bookcase in my office where I place them on top of last season’s accumulation. Why I do this I do not know. I certainly don’t catalog them. When I move them, I may glance at them, but I seldom look at them after that. I just have them.

I get the Playbills, obviously, because I go to plays, and part of the reason I go to plays is because of Professor Alan Downer. I took his course in modern drama in college. We saw a few classic movies—I seem to remember M and Treasure of the Sierra Madre–but mostly we read plays. I found almost every one of them interesting, and I still remember many of them. On the other hand, I don’t remember any specific lecture by Downer. They must have been informative, however, for I feel as though I have a solid grasp of the development of modern drama, and that had to come from the Professor.

While I enjoyed reading dozens of plays in college, I had seen very few–a couple of high school and college productions and only one or two professional companies. I had not yet learned the real power of the stage.

Soon after I came to New York that changed. I was lucky enough to attend Peter Brook’s now legendary Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I learned that night that a script can be read, but that a play must be seen. This was not Shakespeare of the printed word, but the creation of a magical world on the stage. It drew me into that world. It was more immediate than any movie could ever be. It required live actors, a stage, and an audience. I learned that evening that the theater could present an experience that could not be had elsewhere.

When I now experience the powerful moment that only the theater can give, I think of Brook’s Dream, but I also I often think of Elmer Rice, little known today but a prolific playwright from the last century. I was introduced to Rice in Downer’s course where I read The Adding Machine. I have never seen it, even though it is occasionally still mounted, but the play stuck with me. Decades after college, I learned that Rice was a graduate of the law school that employed me, and I then read some of Rice’s writings on the theater. I was gratified to find that he stressed what Brook’s Dream had revealed to me–a play is meant to be seen, not just read. He said, “To read in a stage direction such indications of mood as ‘savagely’ or ‘tearfully’ is surely not the same as to sit tensely in one’s seat while a player strides the boards in simulated rage, or to be moved to tears oneself by the apparent distress of a beautiful actress.” And he gave some examples.

Elmer Rice explained the effect watching Act II, Scene II from Macbeth had on him.  The title character has killed Duncan, but he has not implicated the grooms as planned. Lady Macbeth scornfully leaves to do the unfinished deed. The stage directions say, “Knocking within.” That direction is repeated over the next few lines. Lady Macbeth returns, and she, too, is now covered in blood. Rice continues: “It is dramatic enough in the reading, but the full effect can be understood only when one sits in the theatre watching those two desperate figures in the cold predawn light, he already overcome with guilt and remorse, she hysterically intent upon the consummation of the crime. Then comes the knocking upon the locked gate of the castle; the inchoate fears of Macbeth and the cold disdain of his wife are punctuated by the repeated pounding. Who is there? Will the guilt be discovered? The words convey all that, of course, but they are immeasurably enhanced by the visible and audible situation. No one who has merely read the play can be aware of the intensity of this celebrated scene when it is enacted.”

(Concluded on May 11.)

Lenape Land on 42nd Street

I saw This Space Between Us last week, a funny, touching, and thought-provoking play written by Peter Gil-Sheridan and performed by a strong ensemble of six. The play was presented by the Keen Company, one of the many theater organizations in New York City.

As I have written about before, I read and save Playbills. Search Results for “playbill” – AJ’s Dad (ajsdad.blog) This one had a multi-page insert that briefly told me about the Keen Company and more extensively about the foundations and individuals who have given money to it, how I could donate to the Company, and how the audience could promote the play. All this was ordinary stuff, the usual kind of information in a Playbill.

What was different, however, was a paragraph headed Land Acknowledgement, which told me that I was “in New York City, which is the traditional land of the Lenape people. Keen Company recognizes the long history of the territory we occupy, and its significance for the indigenous peoples who lived and continue to live and work here. We pay our respects and gratitude to the Elders, both past and present, for their stewardship of this region.”

I did not completely understand this. What did stewardship of this region entail? Was this stewardship ongoing? Was it a reference to a particular plot of ground that encompassed 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues where the theater is? Or did it refer to the time when the Lenape lived as a people on lands in the Northeast?

So what was the point to this wokeness? Lenape were forced from their lands in the Northeast almost two centuries ago and even earlier for Manhattan. Driven further and further west, they are now largely in five different tribes located in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Ontario. Does this paragraph in a Playbill insert for an off-Broadway production make the Lenape living far from New York City feel better?

I also wondered if the paragraph fit with what is supposed to be the mission of the theater company and the theme of the play that I saw. The Playbill stated that “Keen Company is an award-winning Off-Broadway theatre creating story-driven work that champions identification and connection. In intimate productions of plays and musicals, the company tells stories about the decisive moments that change us.” Did that paragraph about the Lenape champion identification and connection and was it about a decisive moment that changes us? If so, I did not see it. I did not feel any more decisively connected with the Lenape after reading Land Acknowledgement than I had been before.

And This Space Between Us made me question the paragraph further. In the play, Ted, a vegan, corrects the political incorrectness of others and is fond of saying, “You can’t just talk the talk, you must walk the walk.” Jamie, Ted’s partner, announces that he wants to walk the walk and is leaving his high paid legal job to work for an NGO that tries to better lives in Eritrea. At the core of this amusing and touching play is walking the walk and how mere talk accomplishes little. I could not see how the smug Lenape paragraph truly advanced anything. It seemed simply to talk the talk.

The Keen Company could have tried to get its audience to take a step or two. It at least could have told us that there is a Lenape Center in New York and urged us to visit and support it. We might have been told that the Brooklyn Public Library has been holding programs featuring some Lenape people whose ancestors were forced to Oklahoma and Wisconsin. And the paragraph might have said that there is an exhibition about the Lenape curated by Lenape at a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Instead, we got only that the Keen Company paid their respects and gratitude to non-defined Elders, and I thought, as I do about many politically correct statements, that it is not expected or even meant to accomplish anything other than to make the speakers or writers feel better about themselves.

This Space Between Us, however, is worth seeing.


Cake bakers bake cakes. Bread bakers bake bread. Cookie bakers bake cookies. Bagel bakers bake bagels (after boiling them first, I hope.) Pretzel bakers bake pretzels, with a twist, of course. A recent email from a right wing “religious” organization, referred to “Christian bakers Aaron and Melissa Klein.” Oh, dear! Do Christian bakers bake….?­­

Born-again Christians. Isn’t it better to get it right the first time?

Ascribed to Billy Sunday in Jess Walter, The Cold Millions: “Goin’ to church don’t make you a Christian any more than goin’ to a garage makes you an automobile.”

Do the Christians who are non-celiac but gluten-free pray sincerely, “Give us this day our daily bread”?

Increasingly actors listing credits in Playbills include preferred pronouns. For example, the actor playing Max in the production I just saw included (he/him/his) and the one playing Sandra had (she/her). And pronouns often appear on the signature lines of emails these days. I wrote about how a new pronoun for the NBP has not come easily to me. Search Results for “pronoun” – AJ’s Dad (ajsdad.blog). But my preferred personal pronouns have remained constant: I, me, and especially mine.

I have not done much traveling since Covid infiltrated, but it is funny what I retain from earlier trips. For example, I went to Morocco shortly before the pandemic. I could not name all the different foods I tried. I cannot remember all the restaurants and hotels. I could not even tell you all the cities I visited. But I do remember that Morocco had many wonderful, varied streetlights.

Like others, I have admired the broad boulevards of Paris that help make the city beautiful. However, A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh says that these streets were not designed for their esthetics but to aid the police so that the thoroughfares could not be blockaded as they had been earlier in the Nineteenth Century.

Call me prejudiced. I was surprised at how fit–and attractive–the mixed-doubles Olympic curlers were.

“It seldom pays to be rude. It never pays to be only half rude.” Norman Douglas.

Reality is the only obstacle to happiness.

Are you a Zen master if, when you order a hot dog, you say, “Make me one with everything”?


The spouse asked me what time I wanted to leave to be on time for our restaurant reservation. I answered. She immediately said she wanted to go five minutes earlier, and it was clear that we were going at her preferred time. As I started to ask why she asked me what time I wanted to go, I, of course, knew the answer. If by happenstance I had stated the time when she wanted to go—the time when we would go–she could look like she was merely acquiescing to my wishes.


If a mirror flips your image so your left side appears to be your right side, why doesn’t it also flip top and bottom? Why don’t you look as if you are standing on your head when you look in a mirror?


The two had co-authored the book of a play I attended. The credit for Leo Schwartz in the Playbill said, “His musical, Till, about Emmett and Mamie Till, won the Mainstreet Musical Theatre Festival in 2016.” The credit for DC Cathro said, “His musical Till, written with award-winning composer Leo Schwartz, was one of three winners in the 2016 Mainstreet Musical Festival.”


The Christian radio station gave a few brief Bible readings, although where the sacred words left off and commentary began was not always clear. It also presented short inspirational stories and exhortations. Mostly, however, it played music, and mostly that music fell into the rock category. I remembered back to when rock started. (Alas, I am old enough to remember when “Rocket 88,” Bill Haley, and Elvis Aron were all new.) I recalled how ministers smashed 45s saying that rock was music of the devil. This made me think about how powerful He is. In only the short span ofmy lifetime, He had transformed a genre that would send me into eternal damnation into music that was now for the devout. Hallelujah!


“There is no such thing as hell, of course, but if there was, then the sound track to the screaming, the pitchfork action and the infernal wailing of damned souls would be a looped medley of ‘show tunes’ drawn from the annals of musical theater.” Gail Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.


I was driving midweek in central Pennsylvania. Signs seemed to be everywhere for a weekend church festival. I was sorry that I was not going to be there then because the festival offered not just the usual entertainment and food, but something that I have never experienced and could not entirely imagine: A Polka Mass!


“But, despite the convictions of many of the faithful in any tradition, who are convinced that religion never changes and that their beliefs and practices are identical with those of the founders of their faith, religion must change in order to survive.” Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History.