Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Charles Ferguson’s film, Inside Job, is one terrific polemic. We all know what a polemic is, don’t we? A diatribe, invective, rant, tirade, broadside, attack, harangue, condemnation, criticism, stricture, admonition, rebuke. Derived from Greek polemikos, meaning “warlike, hostile.”  Well, Inside Job is all of those. But an enjoyable polemic, that is, to the extent that a film about an economic crisis can be enjoyable.

There’s probably little you don’t know that the film reveals. It’s appeal to me is just the completeness of it all, the connecting of the dots, the incriminating clips, the implicating documents, the squirming of the culprits, the delicious ambush interviews, the rounding up of all the usual suspects. This is what sustains your interest for almost two hours, and why 26 of the 27 top newspaper and magazine critics in Rotten Tomatoes gave it favorable reviews – an almost unprecedented near-unanimity. (The only critical rotten tomato was hurled by Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, whose reviewer found it “incoherent.”)
Another service is that the film underscores the incompetence of all involved in this tragedy, as well as the venality of so many of the players. As to the ineptitude, it reminds me of my post a couple of years ago as the crisis was rising to its climax:

In 1983, screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men, Princess Bride, et al.) wrote Adventures in the Screen Trade, a brilliant and entertaining analysis of the movie industry. His unforgettable takeaway line that summarized the entire 436-page book, the phrase that captured the essence of Hollywood, and now the single best explanation of why we’re in such a economic mess: “Nobody knows anything.” 

Who are the nobodies? Well, there are the CEOs, the Treasury, the Fed, the Congress, the Administration, the SEC, the other regulators, the journalists, the investors and the voters. Did I leave anyone out?

Actually, I left out academia.  One of the film’s contributions is pointing out how many of  the leading academics were unaware at best and wrong at worst on the impending economic collapse.  And it disclosed how many of them had really shocking (and undisclosed) conflicts of interest. (Conflicts? Do I hear ratings agencies?)

But my favorite incompetent – Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner – declined to be interviewed. (I’ll bet that a bunch of others who went on camera wish they hadn’t.) It would have been interesting to hear him defend the rosy scenario he was making as head of the New York Fed in speeches throughout 2007, just a year before all hell broke loose. Some excerpted phrases about the strength of the economy and the financial system:

reduced concern about future fundamental risk…

…improved our confidence in the ability of markets to absorb stress…

…the capital positions of banks have improved

…reinforced expectations of future stability

…increasing comfort with higher leverage…

…the larger global financial institutions are generally stronger in terms of capital relative to risk..

…financial innovation has improved the capacity to measure and manage risk…

By the way, Geithner is still Treasury Secretary.

His last comment, on the so-called benefits of financial innovation, reminds me of one of the perceptive lines in the movie, made, I believe, by the head of the International Monetary Fund, who was pretty critical of everyone:

“Why is it that we pay financial engineers 4 to 100 times as much as we do real engineers? Real engineers make things.”

By the way, it's different in China. Is there a lesson to be learned?

Despite the New York Post review, go see Inside Job.

Monday, November 29, 2010


This is a love letter to  one of  New York City’s great entertainment treats – Encores!

Presented by New York City Center, Encores! is a series that revives three Broadway musicals each November-March season. Some of the musicals are well known, others not. But in our ten years of attending Encores!, every show has been worth seeing, and almost all have offered great musical theater experiences.

Just imagine the excitement of being able to relive the great composers and lyricists in American musical theater history: Porter, Kander, Ebb, Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein II, Sondheim, Styne, Fields, Harnick, Harburg, Comden, Green, Adler, Ross, Lerner, Lane, Berlin, Loesser, Gershwin, Bock, Strouse, Arlen, Weill, Bernstein, Kern… All these and more have had their shows revived at Encores!

The performances are semi-staged. The full scores are performed by a lush-sounding twenty-odd-piece orchestra that plays in full view on stage.  (Compare this with many Broadway musicals today where the “orchestra” is perhaps a five-piece group, larded with synthesizers, and hidden from view.) The choreography follows as closely as possible that of the original production, as does the book. The sets, however, are minimal -- a fair trade in my view. Another Encores! hallmark --  the performers, who only have eight days of rehearsal, carry their scripts with them (just in case).

But there is nothing else “semi” about the Encores! productions. Under artistic director Jack Viertel, the acting, singing, dancing, and directing are always first rate. Encores! is able to recruit first-class established talent, as well as emerging stars, and for meager recompense -- this is a not-for-profit theater. The attraction for some is the ability to learn and perform in a musical that they never had the chance to participate in. Others do it for fun. Some do it as a showcase. But none does it for the money – there isn’t any. Another measure of the quality and appeal of the Encores! revivals: several have gone on to Broadway runs, including the long-running Chicago, Pajama Game, and Gypsy.

Some of the performers during the last decade who’ve answered the call at Encores! are: Kelli O’Hara, Kristin Chenoweth, Kate Baldwin, Jim Norton, Cheyenne Jackson, George Hearn, Raúl Esparza, Sutton Foster, Donna Murphy, Christine Ebersole, Victoria Clark, Sandy Duncan, Philip Bosco, Christine Baranski, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Marin Mazzie, Victor Garber, Michael Cerveris, Patti LuPone, Eli Wallach, Brian D’Arcy James, Karen Ziemba, Maurice Hines, F. Murray Abraham, James Naughton, Len Cariou, Brent Barrett, Anne Hathaway, Idina Menzel.

Each show runs for only five performances over four days. So you don’t have a lot of opportunity to catch one unless you plan in advance. Indeed, this year’s subscriptions are sold out, though single tickets are available for the two remaining  productions, Lost in the Stars and Where’s Charley.

The initial performances of the 2010-11 season were staged a week ago. Bells are Ringing was first produced on Broadway in 1956, starring Judy Holliday. This wacky but delightful musical includes such hit songs as "The Party’s Over," "Just in Time," and "Long Before I Knew You." While Judy wasn’t available to return for the Encores! production, Kelli O’Hara proved to be a terrific replacement. Kelli (South Pacific, The Pajama Game, The Light in the Piazza) is now at the top of the Broadway firmament, yet she – like so many other stars -- is also part of the Encores! world.

And now for something completely different -- we’re talking night-and-day different from Bells are Ringing -- is the forthcoming production of  Lost in the Stars, which plays February 3-6, 2011. This show was one of the most ambitious projects ever attempted on Broadway. The playwright Maxwell Anderson and composer  Kurt Weill created this 1949 musical based on the Alan Paton  novel about racial unrest in South Africa. (I can assure you that the Bells are Ringing song, "I'm Going Back to the Bonjour Tristesse Brassiere Company" will not be reprised in Lost in the Stars.)

The third and final production this season is a revival of the 1948 hit, Where’s Charley, playing March 17-20, 2011. This Frank Loesser musical was a platform for Ray Bolger, the incomparable comic dancer (better known to some as the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz). But to me, Ray Bolger is “Once in Love with Amy,” the show-stopping song-and-dance number in Where’s Charley. And Frank Loesser, of course,  is at the pinnacle of composer-lyricists  -- Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

What’s amazing to me is how few of our New York friends are regulars at Encores!, or even occasional attendees.  And few of our out-of-town friends have even heard of it. Well, consider yourself apprised. Go to the Encores! website and get with the program.

See you on West 55th Street.

All Encores! shows since 1994

Thursday, November 11, 2010


It’s been a busy theater week for us. First came two shows on Broadway -- Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown last Friday, followed on Sunday by La Bête, and then last night Don Pasquale at the Metropolitan Opera.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown  We bravely went to see this show the evening following its opening, and the same day as disastrous reviews appeared in The New York Times  and The Wall Street Journal.  (In fairness, John Lahr in The New Yorker liked it. Go figure.) Undaunted, and hoping for the best, we ventured forth. And why not? Consider the talent involved.

This new musical is based on the film of the same name by Pedro Almodóvar, one of the great filmmakers of our time. The cast is A-list: Patty LuPone, Sherie Rene Scott, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Laura Benanti.  They are stars, multiple-award winners, and among our favorites on Broadway.

And then there is Bartlett Sher, an amazing talent.  He directed one of the memorable musicals we've seen, Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza (we saw it three times), the excellent revival of South Pacific, and two terrific opera productions at the Met – The Barber of Seville and The Tales of Hoffmann

How could he fail? How could this team fail? How this not be a megahit?

Well, you can start with the book writer, Jeffrey Lane.  He transformed the Almodóvar movie into what I can only call a mess of a musical. Then there’s the composer/lyricist, David Yazbek (not one of our favorites), who put together a pedestrian score. Flawed book, forgettable music, uninspired lyrics --there's a start.  

But there were other signs that a train wreck was in the making.  One example: the inexplicable decision by the creative team to stage a fire on a bed while Sherie Rene Scott was trying to sing right next to the fire. Aside from Scott's daunting challenge and the absurdity of the scene, the blaze sent a rancid chemical stench throughout the theater that lasted until intermission. The audience was not amused.

In the final analysis, I guess that talented people, whether in baseball or theater, don’t always pitch perfect games.  So Bart and Patti and Sherie and Brian and Laura – as we say down South, y’all come back again real soon, y’heah? We’ll be there.

La Bête  It’s not often that one sees a play performed that’s written entirely in verse (probably for good reason). But if the play stars Mark Rylance, then you should beat a path to its door. Because there are few actors on the stage today with the versatility and talent of Mark Rylance. We first got to see him in London, where for ten years he was artistic director and a frequent actor in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. He’s appeared in 48 plays by Shakespeare and contemporaries, and won a Tony award for his role in the comedy, Boeing-Boeing.

The highlight of La Bête is watching Rylance deliver a riotously funny 25-minute monologue that includes, among other things, belching, farting, and defecation. Not your cup of tea? Let’s just say, it’s better than it sounds. And the monologue is a theatrical tour de force.

Don Pasquale   Donizetti’s opera buffa is also broad comedy, but it adds music and song. There are few funnier operas (maybe The Barber of Seville) and few sillier plots. But who cares? It’s opera. As Norina, the beautiful superstar Anna Netrebko sings and acts and mugs and somersaults, and nothing much else matters. Yet her co-stars, bass John Del Carlo as the aging bachelor and baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as his conniving physician, are her matches (except for the somersaulting).

This opera is notable for at least one reason. As my friend, Joshua Ruch, reminded me last night, Don Pasquale is one of the few operas in the Met’s repertory -- three by our count -- that incorporates encores during the production. The baritone-bass duet in Act III, with its device of using rhythm and accelerating tempo to make a comic impression, brings the house down, and also brings the singers back for an encore. Similarly, in Verdi’s Nabucco, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves is always repeated. Finally, in Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment, after über-tenor Juan Diego Flórez sings the aria with nine high C’s, he is invariably coaxed by the audience’s tumultuous applause into giving an encore.

Friday, November 5, 2010


There are a lot of great golf stories. There are even some true golf stories.  (As contrasted with tennis – have you ever heard a great tennis story?) Thanks to my good friend, Lewis Lapham, I’m able to share this wonderful anecdote involving his grandfather, Cypress Point, and an incident involving the rules of golf.
Roger D. Lapham

Roger Lapham, onetime mayor of San Francisco, was a founder and president of the Cypress Point Club, one of the treasures in the golfing world. Golf and gambling were Roger’s passion. Grandson Lewis profiled him and the founding of Cypress Point in an entertaining piece in the June issue of Golf Digest. What wasn’t included in the Golf Digest article was the following, as told by Lewis:

“The incident in question dates from the early years of the Great Depression, my grandfather playing a four-ball match for what at the time was a very heavy stake -- $10,000 Nassau, no putts conceded. The game reached the eighteenth hole all even, the bet on the front nine added to the bet on the back nine. Grandfather’s partner played his drive into the trees to the right of the fairway, his next shot across the fairway into the trees on the left, where it was deemed irretrievably lost. Both opponents reached the green with their second shots, leaving themselves long putts but odds-on to get down in two.
18th hole, Cypress Point Golf Course

“Roger Lapham meanwhile had hit his approach into the deep bunker below and to the left of the green, the ball so deeply buried in the sand that it was barely visible. Mindful of the authority vested in him as the president of the club, he studied the lie for a duly diligent period of time before deciding to piss on it.

“He did so thoughtfully and deliberately, a resourceful executive solving a problem as well as expressing an opinion. The providential appearance of casual water he construed as a granting of relief from an extraneous hazard. Placing his ball elsewhere in the bunker, he played it within three feet of the pin.

“The stroke unnerved his two opponents, each of whom three-putted for a bogey five. Grandfather holed the par. His partner heartily congratulated him on having won the match, a result that he endorsed, as did both caddies and five of the six club members who had followed the play from the fifteenth tee.

“Not having been present at the time I can only guess at both the voicing and the nature of the protest. I’ve been told that although the ruling was subsequently upheld on appeal to the board of governors, the dispute, accompanied by strenuous argument and wild gesture, was carried first into the locker room, then to the clubhouse and bar. Strong drink was called for; so were dice and cards. Somehow a settlement was reached, the club rules regarding casual water amended to thereafter specify its source and point of origin.”

Monday, November 1, 2010


In the good old days, reviews were to the point.  They told the reader what he or she wanted to know: Did the reviewer like the book (or play, or movie)? Should the reader read it (or see it)? There might be some extra stuff to fill out the review, but that’s why we read reviews.

My all-time favorite example of the perfect review – one that was succinct, humorous, and to the point  -- came from the critic (variously identified as Dorothy Parker, Kenneth Tynan, Walter Kerr, and others) who reviewed the 1951 John van Druten play based on the stories of Christopher Isherwood, I am a Camera.  The review, in its entirety:  “Me No Leica.”

Today, critics frequently ignore that most important function – placing a value judgment on the work.  But even if they do, they so often do something that I find unforgivable. They feel compelled to disclose the plot, point by point by point. No secret goes unrevealed. No plot turn unexposed.

For that reason, I rarely read a review in advance of reading a novel or seeing a movie.  I might scan it to glean a general impression, but I stay away from any details that would spoil the subsequent experience of actually reading or seeing the work.  After reading the novel or seeing the movie, I then enjoy reading the reviews to compare my experience with those of the critics.

Here’s a case in point of what the world of literary criticism has come to.  I recently read (and enjoyed) Philip Roth’s new novel, Nemesis. Subsequently, I picked up The New York Review of Books and found a review of the book by Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee.  Wow! A Nobel reviewer.

Had I read this review before reading the book, I would have been furious.  Coetzee essentially recites every important plot point in the book.  He writes:

“Generally, a reviewer will try not to spoil the impact of a book by giving away its proper secrets. But I see no way of exploring Nemesis further without breaking this rule. The secret is that… [He gives away the key secret]... More specifically… [Additional plot points passed on]... Furthermore… [Still more]” 

He discloses all. 

So Philip Roth goes to all the trouble of constructing a novel with twists, and Coetzee methodically reveals them.  Why read Roth after reading Coetzee?

And then there are the movie trailers that in two minutes summarize the entire story line of a forthcoming movie.  But that’s another story.

My suggestion:  read reviews later, not sooner, especially if they’re written by Nobel Prize winners.