Sunday, July 30, 2023

Book Review: Chess

Also known as The Royal Game. Bought at the Museum Shop at the Agora in Izmir, Turkey for 59 Turkish Lire or about $2 US. Stefan Zweig's compact novella (80 pages) pits a savant chess master against an Austrian refugee who studied the game obsessively while being held prisoner by the Nazis. Zweig was also an escapee from the Third Reich and committed suicide with his wife in 1942 after they had emigrated to Brazil. The heart of the piece is Dr. B.'s description of his captivity and how he managed to outlast the Nazi interrogators by focusing on chess. He plays against Czentovic, an oafish tradesman's son who happens to be a natural chess master. Zweig examines how obsessions can save us, but also harm us. Dr. B and Czentovic meet on a ship and are drawn into a game by curious fellow passengers. The former is driven nearly mad with the desire to win and his mania nearly destroys him. Compelling and impactful, like a short, sharp shock (to paraphrase WS Gilbert). 

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Reconstructing the Carol Burnett Show, Part 39: Carol, Harvey and Vicki on The Tim Conway Show

Tim with the Village
People on his 
short-lived 1980 variety series
Despite winning two Emmys for his work on the Carol Burnett Show and being nominated for McHale's Navy, Tim Conway had a terrible track record when it came to headlining his own TV show. He had two failed sitcoms, Wrongo, a spoof western, and The Tim Conway Show, as well as a variety series in 1970 (The Tim Conway Comedy Hour). The fourth time was not a charm for Conway with his second attempt at a variety series (with the same title as his previous sitcom, The Tim Conway Show). There were many jokes that the show was the Carol Burnett Show without Carol (which is why we are including it in this series of blogs). It had the same producer (Carol's then-husband Joe Hamilton), orchestra and music director (Peter Matz), and the choreographer Don Creighton was the lead dancer on Carol's show. The Tim Conway Show premiered on March 22, 1980 and played until May 17. When it returned in the fall of 1980, the running time was reduced from one hour to 30 mins. and Harvey Korman joined the cast as a sort of co-host since he and Tim had such great chemistry on Carol's show. 

Tim, Joe and Harvey tried to recapture the magic of Carol's show but it was missing. Tim's Mr. Tudball without Carol's Mrs. Wiggins became tiresome. Even though Harvey was there for some of the show, the Old Man bit was also repetitive. There was some funny material such as the recurring audience-participation sketches where real-life members of the studio audience would participate in a scene reading cue cards with Tim (probably the best segment in the series). The Don Creighton Dancers were a troupe of kids performing as if they were adults which was kind of fun. Jack Riley (best known as the neurotic Mr. Carlton on The Bob Newhart Show) was an effective regular for a while, but was removed after May of 1980. Here's a rundown of Tim Conway Show episodes featuring Carol, Harvey and Vicki (available on YouTube).

Friday, July 28, 2023

B'way/Off-B'way Update: Star Casting with Paulson, Plaza, Shannon, etc.

Sarah Paulson
Emmy, SAG and Golden Globe winner Sarah Paulson (American Crime Story) will return to the New York stage in the Broadway premiere of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins' Appropriate, with previews beginning Nov. 28 in advance of a Dec. 18 opening at the Hayes Theater in a Second Stage production. She last appeared Off-Broadway in Roundabout Theatre Company's 2013 revival of Talley's Folly, and previously on Broadway in Collected Stories, The Glass Menagerie and The Sisters Rosensweig. Appropriate, which premiered Off-Broadway in 2014 at Signature Theater, centers on a white family making a horrifying discovery while closing the estate of their late father. Paulson is also slated to star in a film version of Bruce Norris' Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Book Review: Less

Bought at the Strand for $10 and read mostly on an 10-hour flight from Istanbul to Frankfurt to JFK. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize which was a motivator for me to read it. That and its brevity (I was looking for an absorbing read during a vacation.) Amusing and detailed, this novel follows a gay white male about to turn 50, taking stock of his life as he travels around the world on a series of opportune writing assignments and left-handed invitations from friends of friends, all to avoid the wedding of his ex. Arthur Less is endearing and charming. It's hard to dislike him but it's equally hard to muster any sympathy for him. Ironically, his latest novel has been rejected by his long-time publisher for those very reasons--the protagonist has first-world problems. I mean how many of us would kill to have Less's kind of life--a nice house in San Francisco, a first marriage to a world famous poet, and a trip around the world, gratis! So Greer is making fun of himself. When Less turns his novel into a comedy, that supposedly unblocks him creatively and emotionally. The writing is funny and strong with wonderful descriptions of the various locales in Europe, Africa, and Asia. The opening chapter is particularly funny with its comedy of errors as Less prepares to interview a famous sci-fi author (probably modeled on Games of Thrones' George R.R. Martin) who is suffering from food poisoning. Funny and fast and eventually I warmed up to Less but I didn't feel badly for him.

Friday, July 21, 2023

B'way Update: Sondheim, Ohio, etc.

IATSE, the union representing backstage technicians and craftspeople, and the Broadway League and Disney have reached a tentative agreement, awaiting ratification of the rank and file union members, thereby averting a possible strike and shutdown of Broadway and touring shows. After heaving a sigh of relief, let's catch up on all the Broadway and Off-Broadway news that perked up while I was on vacation in Greece and Turkey:

Sondheim Show Announces Cast and Dates: Here We Are, the final show to boast a score by the late
David Hyde Pierce will
star in Here We Are,
the last Sondheim musical
coming to Off-B'way this fall.
Credit: Joan Marcus

Stephen Sondheim, will begin previews at the Shed's Griffin Theater on Sept. 28 with an opening set for Oct. 22. Derived from two Luis Bunuel classic films, The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, the show features a book by David Ives (All in the Timing) and direction by two-time Tony winner Joe Mantello. The all-star cast includes Obie winner Francois Battiste (The Good Negro, A Raisin in the Sun), Drama Desk winner Tracie Bennett (End of the Rainbow), Drama Desk and Emmy winner Bobby Cannavale (The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Boardwalk Empire, Will and Grace), Michaela Diamond (Parade), Amber Gray (Hadestown), Ja Hin (M. Butterfly), Tony winner Rachel Bay Jones (Dear Evan Hansen, Pippin), Tony and Drama Desk winner Denis O'Hare (Take Me Out, Sweet Charity), Drama Desk winner Steven Pasquale (Reasons to Be Pretty, The Bridges of Madison County), Tony and Emmy winner David Hyde Pierce (Curtains, Frasier), and Tony nominee Jeremy Shamos (Clybourne Park).

Ohio Musical to Open on Broadway: Seven autistic actors will be making their Broadway debuts in the new musical How to Dance in Ohio, set to begin previews Nov. 15 at the Belasco Theater in advance of a Dec. 10 opening. Based on Alexandra Shiva's 2015 HBO documentary, the musical focuses on a group of autistic young adults at an Ohio counseling center as they prepare for a
The cast of How to Dance in Ohio.
Credit: Curtis Brown

formal dance. The show premiered at Syracuse Stage in 2022 and features music by Jacob Yandura and book and lyrics by Rebekah Greer Melocik, who are also making their Broadway debuts. Director Sammi Cannold is also a first-timer for the Main Stem.

Graciela Daniele Bio-Musical at LCT: Lincoln Center Theater will present a new musical, The Gardens of Anuncia, based on the early life of Broadway director-choreographer Graciela Daniele in the Mitzi Newhouse Theater, beginning previews Oct. 19 and opening Nov. 20. Daniele directs and co-choreographs with Alex Sanchez, Michael-John LaChuisa (The Wild Party, Hello Again, Marie Christine) writes the book, music and lyrics. The musical opens with Anuncia (Tony winner Priscilla Lopez) in her garden, reflecting on her girlhood in Juan Peron's Argentina and the family members who inspired her to be a stage artist. The cast also includes Enrique Acevedo, Andrea Burns (In the Heights), Eden Espinosa (Rent, Wicked), Tally Sessions, Tony nominee and Obie and Drama Desk winner Mary Testa (First Daughter Suite, On the Town, 42nd Street), and Kalyn West. The musical premiered at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego in 2021 just before Daniele received a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award.
A scene from The Gardens of Anuncia
at the Old Globe Theater.
Credit: Jim Cox

Thursday, July 20, 2023

My Cruise to Greece and Turkey: Part 5: Istanbul and Frankfurt Airport

Mon. July 17--Istanbul
The elegant lobby of the Intercontinental
Hotel in Istanbul
We regretfully checked out of the Sirena cruise ship this morning--though ten days is about enough for a cruise--and after a loooong walk through passport control, got on our transfer bus to the Intercontinental Hotel in Istanbul. The cruise was wonderful and I highly recommend Oceania Cruise Lines which organized everything with helpful staff pointing us in the right direction otherwise we would have been totally lost. The Intercontinental is a gorgeous, elegant, modern hotel with a spacious lobby out of a science fiction movie. The stairway alone is worth the high price of a room. It looks like Mame or Dolly should be walking down its steps for the big production number.

We had one full day in the Turkish capital and decided to take a cruise of the bosphorus (where Vickie Edyie gets preposterous, if recall that bit from Bette Midler's Live album). Our guide Mehmet was fun and informative. We stopped at the Spice Market, sampling Turkish taffy and candy. This crowded bazaar was not as chaotic and overwhelming as the
Spice Market

Grand Bazaar we had been to on our last visit. It was remarkable for its colorful displays and non-aggressive salesmen. Then we took our cruise on the bosphorus with Mehmet providing commentary. At one point, I had a picture taken as we approached a bridge to show we were between Europe and Asia. 

Back at the hotel, we got a dinner recommendation from the concierge for a local place that had authentic food. The cuisine was adequate, but the views of the river were spectacular with seagulls hovering nearby. We went to bed after watching CNN International and EuroNews. It was so refreshing not to be bombarded with internal US political news and the ongoing Trump shit show. The main story was the heat wave engulfing Europe and the United States. Pavements and streets were actually burning people and forest fires continued to blaze. Heat domes and pizza ovens were used to describe the effect. This staggering heat is becoming the new normal and will continue to create crises as parts of the world become uninhabitable.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Book Review: Our Missing Hearts

Bought the hardback at the Strand for $12.50 and read during my cruise of Greece and Turkey. Yet another dystopian near-future novel, felt kinda familiar after so many similar works by Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro. Ng is clearly influenced by recent events involving anti-Asian hate crimes and the MAGA movement. Twelve-year-old Bird is growing up in an oppressive America where any dissent with the government is severely punished and children can be taken from their parents for the slightest infraction. Bird's mom, a poet whose work has inspired some unpopular protests, disappeared three years ago and the action centers on the kid finding her. Suspenseful and chilling, but too much like Atwood's vision of a dictatorial future.

My Cruise to Greece and Turkey: Part 4: Kavala, Limnos

Sat., July 15--Kavala

Kavala's idea of public transportation.
At least it was free.
This was a down day, meaning no strenuous activity. It was just too hot as all of Europe became a pizza oven. All the news reports gave the temperature in celsius so it doesn't sound too bad. But when you convert it, the mercury reaches triple digits and to quote Cole Porter, it's too darned hot. We went shopping in the town of Kavala and bought several shirts, then had a snack at a coffee place of which there are hundreds. Jerry went back to the ship and I wandered around the seafront, eventually finding a cute little train for free. There is not narration or tourist information, it just climbs the steep, narrow streets up the mountain. Locals use it for public transportation to get to their home high up. I caught the last one at 1300 or 1 pm in American time. The whole ride was 20 minutes up the hills and back to the town square, with stops at the usual castle, fort, amphitheater, etc. No guide, no context, just up the winding, twisting streets not much wider than alleyways. It was something to do and I saw some great views but too may other people blocked me for a good picture.

Sunday, July 16, 2023

My Cruise to Greece and Turkey: Part 3: Izmir, Chios and Karfas

Thurs. July 13--Izmir, Turkey

The clock tower in 
the main square of Izmir, Turkey
The main attraction of Izmir is 45 minutes away--the ruins at Ephesus and the home of the Virgin Mary. We had seen both the last time we were in Turkey, so this port of call was not a highlight. Izmir itself is a large city with a massive labyrinthine bazaar and a cruise pier a few miles from the center of town. Jerry stayed on board and I took the shuttle bus in. I wondered around the boiling city until I found the tourism center and acquired a map which led me to the agora of Smyrna, an ancient metropolis founded by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE. I trudged pass souvenir shops, restaurants, and fish markets to emerge at the ruin with its columns, running water, headstones, and archways (including the Faustina gate, named for the wife of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius who rebuild the city after a devastating earthquake.)

Oddly enough, the highlight of the agora for me was browsing in the tiny museum gift shop. Amid the magnets, postcards and reproductions of busts and statues was a display of classics in English for 69 and 79 Turkish lire--the equivalent of $3 or $4 dollars US. The titles were off-beat, second-tier works by major authors--Jacob's Room and A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf, A Tale of the Stone Age by HG Wells, The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell, several short works by Stefan Zweig, etc. I was suddenly transported to the Strand Bookstore. They were all cheap and had simple, attractive covers. All published in Turkey in English. I don't know why I wanted to but I took a picture, maybe to capture this unexpected island of rare English literature in a remnant of the ancient world. I wound up buying two postcards, a magnet that said Turkey with pictures of different cities in each letter and Chess by Zweig, a slim novella I'd never heard of before with a preface on Zweig. I will have to read the other titles at some point.

Friday, July 14, 2023

My Cruise to Greece and Turkey: Part 2: Crete, Marmaris, Bodrum

Mon. July 10--Crete

Our guide Karen at the Phaestos Palace site
We rose at 6am to get to our excursion for the archeological site at Phaestos from the Minoan era (12th century BC). The trip to the number one ancient palace Knossos was full, so we had to take number two, Phaestos. We docked and took abus for 1 hour and 15 mins. to the site. Our guide Karen was very informative. She is originally from the Netherlands and has lived on Crete for 30 years. She gave us lots of information about Crete and its occupation by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Venetians, the Ottoman Turks and finally their union with Greece. She also gave us her thoughts on the current Greek economy, the European Union, etc. 

We were too tired to do anything after the four-hour tour including the long drive back to the boat. After lunch and lounging on the pool deck, I played Team Trivia, scoring 12 out of 15 (I correctly guessed that Elizabeth Taylor had been married 8 times to 7 different husbands). Then high tea on the Horizons deck. The string quartet played unusual selections like "Three Little Maids from School" from The Mikado and The Beatles' Yellow Submarine as I sipped Earl Grey and munched little salami sandwiches and sweet pastries, just like at Harrod's. 

My Cruise to Greece and Turkey: Part 1: Athens, Santorini

The view of the parthenon from
our hotel in Athens
For my fourth cruise trip, we decided to go with Oceania Cruises, based on a recommendation of a friend who said the intimate, medium-sized ships allowed for better service and less crazy crowding getting on and off the ship. A ten-day cruise of the Greek islands and Turkish seaside cities worked out best for our schedule during the summer. It's been a delightful and relaxed trip. I haven't felt pressure to rush around and see ruins or historical sites. The important thing is to escape and take it easy. Here's a rundown of the trip:

Thurs. July 6--Athens
After our flight from JFK to Zurich to Athens, we checked into our hotel at the Greek capital, the Great Bretaigne (overlooking the Acropolis and the Parthenon) and had dinner at a local restaurant (very good). The flight was SwissAir--watched the first episode of Season 2 of The White Lotus (what's all the fuss about with the entire cast nominated for Emmys?) and Season 5 of The Handmaid's Tale (I'd lost interest after the first four seasons, but thought I would catch up.)

Saturday, July 8, 2023

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

Bought at the Strand (I think): Purchased several weeks ago to read while on a ten-day cruise in Greece and Turkey, so I can't recall exactly where I got this poetic bizarre novel. After reading The Five People You Meet in Heaven and The Lovely Bones, it seemed natural to follow up with a depiction of the journey of Abraham Lincoln's little boy Willie in the after life. Saunders imagines a nebulous in-between land as a bridge from life to death. Willie Lincoln perishes of typhoid in the White House while his parents host an elaborate ball and the Civil War rages. Willie's spirit is ensnared by souls of the damned as other departed spirits try to wrest him free. Saunders employs a strange technique--each short chapter is composed of quotes and sources as if this were an historical document. Sections pertaining to events on earth use excerpts from memoirs and histories while those dealing with events in the spirit realm are attributed to the ghosts who speak them. A slew of characters come to life (or death) as Saunders depicts how they passed and their limbo-like status as they await a final judgment. A hunter must spend eternity comforting each animal he mercilessly slaughtered. An African-American enslaved woman repeatedly raped while alive can no longer speak. A repressed gay man is all noses, mouths and eyes since he pushed down his senses in life. Much spookier and more frightening than either of the previously mentioned books on heaven. Fascinating view of 19th century American life as well as a thoughtful fantasy of death and redemption and a searing portrait of Lincoln and his troubled state of mind during the worst part of the war.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Reconstructing the Carol Burnett Show: Part 38: Carol in the 1990s

A new batch of episodes from Carol's early 1990s period--encompassing the anthology series Carol and Company on NBC and her short-lived 1991 CBS rebooted variety series--have cropped up on YouTube.

Carol and Company (NBC 1990-91)
Season One:
May 12, 1990: Myna and the Messenger
Guest Star: Howie Mandel
Carol and Howie Mandel in
Myna and the Messenger
A neat little morality tale written by playwright Mark St. Germain who had some success Off-Broadway with plays such as Camping with Tom and Henry and Ears on a Beatle. Carol plays Myna, a deeply religious woman who prays for a miracle to save her church which is set for the wrecking ball. In walks Mandel (After St. Elsewhere but before Deal or No Deal) as regular-guy angel Steve. 

Steve persuades Myna to go to Atlantic City and gamble her life savings in order to save the church. Much of the comedy derives from the straight-laced Myna coming up against prostitutes and bikers. But after a few Harvey Wallbangers, she begins rolling sevens at the craps table and forgets her Sunday School morality. The twist ending is unexpected as Myna discovers she was betting on the wrong angel. Dennis Burkley has a nice guest turn as a burly biker who turns out to be more than his scary exterior would indicate.

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Book Review: The Lovely Bones

Found for free in the basement bookcase of a neighbor (residents put their unwanted books down there.) Another one of the 100 books the BBC says I should read before I die. Coming almost right after The Five People You Meet in Heaven, this provided a more palatable version of the afterlife for me than the previous Hallmark Card version written by Mitch Albom. Alice Sebold's best-seller imagines a 14-year-old girl looking down on her family, friends and her murderer after she is raped and killed. There's less sugary sentimentality here, plus the Pennsylvania locale is familiar to me having grown up in Norristown (though I can't remember any cornfields.) The format is that of a police thriller, but it's more about our relationship with the dead and how they live inside us as long as we remember them. That's Sebold's metaphor for heaven. The murdered girl lives in an idealized version of her hometown and the high school she never got to attend. She watches her family on Earth as they adjust (or fail to adjust) to her absence. Their complex stories form the backbone if you will and the metaphysical speculation is thankfully kept to a minimum. The police thriller aspect, is not stereotypical with a false Hollywood TV ending. With all its spiritualism and visits from the dead, The Lonely Bones is more realistic than The Five People You Meet in Heaven. The subsidiary characters are as finely drawn as the dead girl and her family, especially the alcoholic, but supportive grandmother. I liked the neighbor mother, Mrs. Singh, and her Dunhill cigarettes.