Monday, November 17, 2014

"Banksy Does New York"

Review: "The Real Thing"

“I love love. I love having a lover and being one. The insularity of passion. I love it. I love the way it blurs the distinction between everyone who isn't one's lover.” 

There are few greater playwrights in the English language than Tom Stoppard -- Sir Tom Stoppard, that is to you. 

For nearly half a century, he has crafted some of the finest language ever to have crossed the stage. From the balls-out, awesome inventiveness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in the late 1960s -- a reworking of Hamlet from the perspective of the doomed prince's doomed sidekicks -- to the massive Coast of Utopia trilogy in the mid-aughts -- about, of all things, 19th century Russian intellectuals -- Tom Stoppard finds inspiration in the most unlikely material and brings it to life on stage with words of great beauty and power, the most dazzling language created this side of Shakespeare. Indeed, Stoppard is one of the Bard's true blue successors. 

I've seen some of Stoppard's plays over the years -- Arcadia, The Invention of Love, Jumpers -- and they never cease to amaze me. That was why I was so happy to go to the Roundabout revival of Stoppard's 1980's hit The Real Thing -- the second time it has been revived on Broadway since 1985 and the second time I've seen it stage. This is a very good production with one glaring problem.

The Real Thing is about a playwright named Henry (Ewan McGregor) who has been having an affair with Annie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the wife of his actor friend Max (Josh Hamilton). Henry is married to Charlotte (Cynthia Nixon), an actress who is currently appearing in a play written by Henry. It's not giving away much that Henry and Annie run off together. Most of the play is devoted to the complexity of their relationship while Annie tries to negotiate her acting career while at the same time working on the "Free Brodie" (an imprisoned political activist) committee and Henry tries to keep writing while grappling with the challenge of being a divorced dad. Like all Stoppard play's, the plot is a device to encourage a larger discussion on the nature of truth, love, sex, family and how we understand them through the beauty and challenges of ... words. Also, The Real Thing has a big plot twist -- some might even call it a trick -- and it appears at the beginning of the play, not the end. Like all Stoppard plays, not only is the language sublime but so is the plotting.

This production is beautifully staged. The set is very modest and the actors really move around and use it in a way that helps to make the story compelling. There's a lot of music in this production, with the actors even singing along to a diverse number of songs like "Do Run Run" and "Whiter Shade of Pale." And, of course, the acting is great (well ... almost all of it). Cynthia Nixon, as always, is great. As wonderful as she was on Sex and the City, she really is one of the great stage actresses of her generation and is a joy to watch on stage. Josh Hamilton is very good as Max, making the most of the one of the most thankless parts I've ever seen in a play.

The biggest revelation is Maggie Gyllenhaal. Man, she is a GREAT actress. I've seen her in some movies like The Dark Knight and she was good. But on stage, with a great material like Stoppard, she really shines. Her Annie is such a complex, sexy creation that you can't take your eyes off her for a second. She generates so much power from the stage that you leave the theater thinking not just about what a great writer Stoppard is but what a great actress Gyllenhaal is. She inhabits Annie so completely that I'm still thinking about her performance. She's just a joy to watch.

The same, sadly, quite can't be said about Ewan McGregor. He is a very good actor and I loved him in Trainspotting (who didn't?). Also, he was the only decent thing in the Star Wars prequels. But he's a less than compelling Henry. In the play, Henry is supposed to be a great writer and a lousy human being. In fact, he's kind of a prick. That's part of what makes his evolution in the play into a good husband and father so important. But McGregor is just too likeable, too decent, too ... unprickish ... that this evolution doesn't really register with the audience. I will, however, admit a bias: in the revival I saw in 2000, Stephan Dillane (better known today as Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones) played Henry and he was incredible (won a Tony for it, in fact). McGregor just doesn't compare. I tried to seperate the two performances in my mind but just couldn't: while McGregor's Henry is passable, it just didn't work for me the same way Dillane's did. 

However, these feelings aside, this Real Thing is a production worth seeing. 

“Words... They're innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos. But when they get their corners knocked off, they're no good any more... I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead.” 
P.S. This production is appearing at the American Airlines theater on 42nd street. It's a great theater and it has a secret 5th floor bar that is a great place to go during intermission. When the wife and I went there to get a drink during intermission, there were hardly any people but there were lots of tables and chairs plus a beautiful open-air balcony. It's a real gem and worth checking out if you ever go to a show there.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Welcome to the Oculus

In a rare blip of good news, this week marks the opening of the much awaited, much anticipated, much debated Fulton Center. A $1.4 billion gleaming glass and steel behemoth, it's a strikingly bold move into the 21st century for the New York City subway system.

First conceived in 2002, right after 9/11, Fulton Center is a transit hub that pulls together a goulash of subway lines, namely the A, C, J, Z, 2, 3, 4, 5 and R lines. In addition, there will be "improved access" to the 1 and E lines as well as the PATH trains. In the annals of NYC transportation, this is a big effing deal. If you've ever tried negotiating the subway lines of Lower Manhattan, it's generally been a nightmare of ramps and staircases and seedy tunnels -- very often strewn with trash and bottles and reeking of urine. Also, these various subway entrances and connections were a test case in the limits of crowding humanity into tight areas, making Calcutta look spacious, and inducing numerous bouts of "walker rage."

Fulton Center corrects all this and provides subway riders much needed relief with widened tunnels, brand new staircases, and wheelchair access.

But it's the building itself that makes Fulton Center so impressive -- it looks like it has more to do with space travel than underground travel. Its exterior resembles the capital building of some alien planet from an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (it has a baddass looking dome!). The interior appears to be the hybrid of the inside of a shopping mall and a space station -- a circular atrium, curving staircases, escalators, and numerous screens with dancing images. But the really impressive thing about Fulton Center, some would say the most "magical" thing about it is ... the oculus!

Ah yes -- the oculus!

“The lions at the New York Public Library, the clock in the middle of Grand Central terminal, and now, this jaw-dropping oculus." Thus spake MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast. He has declared that the interior of the aforementioned dome at Fulton Center will fast become one of wonders of NYC. Also called the Sky Reflector Net (no, not like the organization from the Terminator movies), the oculus is composed of 952 diamond shaped reflective panels that draw sunlight into the transit center in good weather and allow people to watch rain dance above them in lousy weather. It brings the millenniums-old natural world into this most cutting-edge example of modern building. And, sarcasm aside, it's really, really impressive.

In its every design and utility, Fulton Center demonstrates that the super-enlightened, super-tech future has arrived in NYC. It's good for the people riding the subways and negotiating the city, and it's a beautiful addition to the architectural splendors of the city.

Sadly, of course, it can't exactly change the behavior of subway riders but, hey, you can't have everything

Monday, November 10, 2014

Never Leave NYC?

There are many, many, many, many, eighteen-thousand billion reasons why living in NYC makes sense -- namely, that it's the most exciting, dynamic city on earth, that there's so much to do that it's beyond comprehension, that there are eight million incredible potential friends you could make, and that this is the cultural and financial capital of the world. In short, living in NYC is like living in a microcosm of the world.

Then there are a couple of good reasons NOT to live in NYC -- namely, that it costs a bloody fortune to live in no space and your quality of life is always a secondary consideration to all that other great stuff.

So what about these 110 Reasons Why You Should Never Leave New York City created by Buzzfeed? 

I read them over and, quite frankly, they don't make a convincing case. This lists things like: pizza, bagels, fast walkers, numerous places for happy hour and brunch, not having to pay for car insurance and gas, people watching, bodegas, picnics on the roof, and looking at the view from a moving train.

I'll give this list that last one but the other reasons seem weak. Of course, I realize that this list is meant to be fun but it would have been better if it actually was fun -- like, NYC has the world's best tranny hookers, the male-to-female ratio weights on the male's favor, you can see SNL, Letterman, and the Tonight Show here, there are multiple airports here that can take you to anywhere in the world, and that NYC is the world's best food city. But hey, who am I to complain? 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Just Enough

In 1973 Stevie Wonder released one of his greatest songs: "Living for the City." It's a heart-wrenching ballad about a young black man from Mississippi who comes to NYC to escape his hard upbringing, only to find it replicated in the big city. As the chorus goes, this kid is "living just enough, just enough for the city."

Struggle seems to be the defining characteristic of life in NYC. Life here is tough -- in so many ways. 

Whether it's metaphorically struggling to pay the rent or get and keep a job, or literally struggling to walk the streets and navigate the public transportation system, just getting through an ordinary day in NYC can often seem like a marathon made up of many sprints. Stevie Wonder hit upon an essential truth in his song that the young man of his song -- and so many others in this city -- are doing "just enough" to survive here.

This may be the city where dreams are made, where teaming millions with sweeping ambitions congregate, where fortunes are made, fame is gained, and legends are forged, but, for most of us, just getting here and staying here is a triumph. 

Living in NYC is so hard, getting to that "just enough" is so tough, why then do we stay? 

Because so many of New Yorkers, like yours truly, just "can't quit" this town. There's no sense to it, no rhyme or understandable reason, no train of logic that doesn't have many swerves and detours to explain why so many of us stay here, spend a fortune to live in no space, and put up with noise, garbage, crowds, etc. etc. etc. but ... we stay. Why?

Perhaps this article and this radio segment can provide some perspective. They provide good reasons why so many New Yorkers stay when logic and budgets should send us elsewhere. But, like Stevie, they hit upon another essential truth: for many of us, it's "just enough" to survive in NYC that makes staying here worth it, and most of us would rather do so than thrive anywhere else.   

Friday, October 10, 2014

Jan Hooks RIP

Back in the late 1980s, when I was a kid and started watching "Saturday Night Live", Jan Hooks was part of the cast. It was, in retrospect, one of the great periods for SNL. Along with Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, Kevin Nealon, Mike Meyers, and Victoria Jackson, this was the time of such memorable recurring sketches as "Wayne's World", "Sprockets", "Church Lady", the first President Bush, Caveman Lawyers, and lots more. Hooks and Nora Dunn had a recurring sketch, the Sweeney Sisters, about two over-the-hill, over-the-top lounge singers which was very funny.

But Jan Hooks stood out as the best female impersonator in the history of SNL. There simply wasn't one female person of note that she didn't impersonate and totally nail: Tammy Faye Bakker, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Sinead O'Connor, Diane Sawyer and, as you can see here, Kathie Lee Gifford. Jan Hooks just dissolved into whoever she was imitating and, sometimes, she seemed more real and believable than the real people. You never got the sense that Jan Hooks was trying to be funny -- she just was funny, naturally, and made it seem totally effortless. She was amazingly talented.

Jan Hooks never had a huge career after SNL -- she was on some sitcoms and did guest roles here and there. It's too bad, because she was as good as any man who came out of that show. It was harder, then, for female comedians to brake out but she paved the way for people like Kristen Wiig and Sarah Silverman who came afterwards. But Jan Hooks was a memorable talent and her death at age 57 is very sad.

But I'll always remember the laughter she gave me as a kid back on those dark Saturday nights in front of the TV. Thank you, Jan.    

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Climate March in NYC

Is Airbnb Good for NYC?

Yes! Yes it is! Airbnb is wonderful! It's the best thing ever to happen to NYC! Everyone loves it! It's the greatest thing ever! Oh my god, I love Airbnb so much! It's so awesome! I want to marry it and have 10 million of its babies!

No, not really. I'm kidding. Hope you could tell.

Airbnb, the "sharing" website that lets people rent our their apartments, has been on an aggressive PR campaign to try to convince New Yorkers that not only is this business great for NYC but that New Yorkers love it and think it's a wonderful thing. I've written about Airbnb before and lots of electronic ink has been spilled over its merits and drawbacks but it all comes down to this: it's illegal. 

Airbnb is a crime syndicate. It is illegal for people to rent out their apartments if they are in a rental building or co-op. The renters are not paying hotel taxes. The buildings are not zoned to be hotels. And very often Airbnbers are using these temporary rentals to engage in drugs or prostitution or other illegal stuff. It's been leading to disturbing things like total strangers roaming the halls, young people having parties in the middle of the night, and all sorts of other unintended consequences -- like landlords not renting out apartments and turning them into permanent Airbnb hotels. This is illegal! 

And yet ... Airbnb will try to tell us otherwise. And man, they are out in force! This company is flooding the airways with ads, you can't go into the subway without an Airbnb poster getting in your face. They're more aggressive than panhandlers! And this article about Airbnb is fascinating -- not only for the article itself but also for the comments section. At first, all of the comments are anti-Airbnb, people who guinealy have a problem with the company, and then ... a little while later ... but then quite suddenly ... a stream of pro-Airbnb comments! Hmmmm ... wonder why? Clearly, Airbnb is paying these people to search the Internet and flood comments sections and chat rooms with the company line. It's Astroturfing at its finest.

I've seen this before. I wrote a few anti-Walmart blog posts in the past and they always resulted in pro-Walmart comments being instantely fired back at me. I wondered who in NYC loves Walmart so much that they would take the time to write corporate propaganda messages to me, a nobody blogger? Then I realized that I was being Astroturfed, that people on the Walmart payroll were doing it as part of their PR campaign. I'm waiting, waiting quite patiently, for the first Airbnb Astroturfing comment to be flung my way. Quite frankly, I'll be a lil' sad if they don't.

So no, Airbnb is not good for NYC. In fact, it's really, really bad. Like, really, really, really bad.