22 October 2016

'The Roads to Home'

There’s story theater and, apparently, there’s story theater.  The first is the theatrical presentation of a story (or stories), usually fairytales or fables, by a group of actors often playing multiple roles.  Characterized by simple scenery and props used imaginatively, the narrative performance is often improvised and music is frequently incorporated in the production.  The other kind, less often seen on professional stages, is a play in which the characters do very little, but sit or stand around telling stories to one another.  It’s a variety of talk theater (see Oslo and A Day by the Sea, reported on this blog on 13 August and 17 September, respectively).

Horton Foote’s The Roads to Home is, unhappily, an exemplar of story theater type 2.  A collection of three connected one-act plays (A NightingaleThe Dearest of FriendsSpring Dance), Primary Stages’ Roads is staged in two acts by Michael Wilson, director of Foote’s monumental Orphans’ Home Cycle at the Signature Theatre Company in 2009 (see my report on 25 and 28 February 2010), for which he received both a Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Award.  Playing at Primary Stages’ new home, the Cherry Lane Theatre in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, The Roads to Home, running two hours and 10 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission, started previews on 14 September and opened on 5 October; the revival is scheduled to close on 27 November (extended from 6 November).  Diana, my usual theater companion, and I caught the performance on Friday evening, 7 October.

The Roads to Home, premièred Off-Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Punch Line Theatre, under the direction of Calvin Skaggs, in New York City on 25 March 1982; a revised version was directed by Foote (featuring the late Jean Stapleton, most recognized as Edith Bunker on Norman Lear’s All in the Family on TV, as Mabel Votaugh) for the Lamb’s Theatre Company in 1992.  (Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter who appears as Mabel in the current revival, played young Annie Gayle Long in both the earlier productions.)
The Cherry Lane Theatre, located at 38 Commerce Street in the West Village between 7th Avenue and Hudson Street (and a few blocks south of another landmark Village playhouse, the Lucille Lortel), is New York City’s oldest continuously running Off-Broadway theater.  Opened in 1924 in a former farm silo built in 1817, the Cherry Lane contains a 179-seat main stage and a 60-seat studio.  The structure also served as a tobacco warehouse and box factory before the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and other members of the fabled Provincetown Players converted it into a theater.  It has hosted works by some of the United States’ most illustrious playwrights, from Eugene O'Neill, Clifford Odets, and Gertrude Stein to Lorraine Hansberry, Edward Albee, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Sam Shepard and David Mamet, as well as important European writers like Sean O'Casey, Luigi Pirandello, Eugène Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett.  The Living Theatre performed at the Cherry Lane and in 1962, producers Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder introduced New York (and the U.S.) to a new dramatic genre with a program entitled Theatre of the Absurd at the Cherry Lane. 

By the late 20th century, however, the building was suffering from old age and lack of maintenance.  In serious danger of falling into ruin, the building was bought in 1996 by Angelina Fiordellisi, who began investing in structural improvements.  She went into debt and the playhouse ceased producing, but Fiordellisi kept the building standing.  (It served as a rental theater for independent productions and occasional rep company seasons.)  In 2011, Fiordellisi announced that the theater had retired its debt and would reopen again for productions.

Primary Stages was founded by Casey Childs, currently its executive producer (the current artistic director is Andrew Leynse) in 1984 to produce new plays and foster the development of playwrights, both established and rising.  In 2004, Primary Stages moved from its original 99-seat home, the 45th Street  Theatre (renamed the Davenport Theatre in 2014) on West 45th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues to the 195-seat Theater A at 59E59 Theaters; in 2014, the company moved its productions to the Duke on 42nd Street.  Its current home, beginning earlier this year, is the Cherry Lane, home now to Roads.  Primary Stages has presented over 125 productions in its 32 years, many of them premières.  In addition to Foote, the writers represented on the troupe’s stages have included A. R. Gurney (Indian Blood, 2006; Buffalo Gal, 2008), Willy Holtzman (Sabina, 2005; Something You Did, 2008), Julia Jordan (Boy, 2004), Romulus Linney (2: Goering at Nuremberg, 1995), Donald Margulies (The Model Apartment, 1995; Shipwrecked! An Entertainment, 2009), Christopher Durang (Adrift in Macao, 2007), Terrence McNally (The Stendhal Syndrome, 2004; Dedication or The Stuff of Dreams, 2005), John Henry Redwood (The Old Settler, 1998; No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, 2001), John Patrick Shanley (Missing/Kissing, 1996), Mac Wellman (The Hyacinth Macaw, 1994; Second-Hand Smoke, 1997), Lee Blessing (Going To St. Ives, 2005; A Body of Water, 2008), and David Ives (All in the Timing, 1993; Mere Mortals, 1997).  

Aside from producing plays, Primary Stages also launched a teaching program, the Marvin and Anne Einhorn School of Performing Arts (ESPA), in 2007, and since 1995 has conducted the Dorothy Strelsin New American Writers Group, a residency program for emerging playwrights.  Primary Stages is also associated with Fordham University to offer a Master of Arts degree in playwriting.  In 2008, Primary Stages won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Body of Work; the company’s productions have garnered many additional awards and nominations.  (Of the plays listed above, I have seen a fair number; the reports for several have been posted on ROT.)

Before the revival of The Roads to Home this year, Primary Stages has presented Foote’s The Day Emily Married (2004), Dividing the Estate (2007), and Harrison, TX (three one-acts: Blind Date, The One-Armed Man, The Midnight Caller; 2012).  The company also presented When They Speak of Rita by Daisy B. Foote, the playwright’s second daughter (Hallie Foote’s sister), which Horton Foote directed in 2000. 

I’ve seen four previous Horton Foote plays: The Young Man from Atlanta on Broadway in March 1997; The Trip to Bountiful in 2005 (report posted on 25 May 2013); The Orphans’ Home Cycle, a nine-play cycle telling the story of Foote’s father’s life (25 and 28 February 2010); and The Old Friends (10 October 2013).  (There’s no report on Young Man.  The last three productions were all at the Signature Theatre Company.)  The playwright was born in 1916 in Wharton, Texas, the town in the southeast of the state he came to call Harrison in his plays.  (This year has been Foote’s centennial, the reason for the revival of Roads to Home—and some other events—at Primary Stages.)  He didn’t actually start out to be a writer; he caught the acting “call,” as he put it, as a child—at nine, he says, when he played Puck in a school production of Midsummer Night’s Dream—and decided he wouldn’t go to college “because I didn’t think that would be good for an actor.” 

The budding thespian performed in plays through high school, under the tutelage of the speech teacher who recognized his talent for theater, and after graduating at 16, worked for a year in his father’s haberdashery store and traveled weekly to Houston to continue his acting studies.  At 17, he took a bus to California to study at the Pasadena Playhouse.  From there, he went to New York City in the fall of 1935 and worked at the famous Provincetown Playhouse and attended the Tamara Daykarhonova School for the Stage where he “was re-trained by the Russians.”  He also joined with some other incipient actors and formed a group called the American Actors Company that worked above a garage, a precursor to Off-Off-Broadway. 

Agnes de Mille, already an established dancer and choreographer, came to the troupe to do a project that included sketches and improvs about the places each of the performers came from.  Naturally, Foote did his about Texas.  De Mille took him aside afterwards and told him, “I think there’s something going on here.  You should think about writing.”  So Foote immediately composed a full-length play, Texas Town, writing the lead role for himself, and the American Actors Company staged it.  On opening night, 29 April 1941, Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times reviewer and the dean of New York theater journalists, was in the house on West 16th Street and gave the play “a rave,” according to Foote (“it does considerable honor to a group of tenacious young actors”; “gives a real and languid impression of a town changing in its relation to the world”; “it is impossible not to believe absolutely in the reality of [Foote’s] characters”; “Mr. Foote and the American Actors Company have performed a feat of magic”).  Foote also reports that Atkinson liked all the acting (“most of the acting is interesting and thoughtful”) . . . except the author’s (“none of the parts is stock theatre, except perhaps the part [Foote] plays himself without much talent and with no originality”). 

The company disbanded that summer and Foote says that “the acting desire just left me.”  In exchange, “I became intensely fascinated on writing.”  Thus, a playwright was born, but he’s affirmed, “I think being trained as an actor was very helpful to me.”  He explains that otherwise, “to me it’s like writing for a symphony, if you don’t know the instruments.”  As his daughter Hallie affirms, "He writes wonderful parts for actors.”  (As an erstwhile actor, I’d agree—especially his women’s roles, which are, as an acting teacher of mine would say, “juicy.”  In addition, Foote occasionally directs, both his own plays and his daughter Daisy’s, and I can attest that knowing actors and acting is a marvelous asset for a director.)  The Roads to Home gives proof of Foote’s acumen as an actors’ writer for, even though it has deficiencies in its dramaturgy, the characters are the kind actors love to do.

In his early writing career, Foote gravitated to television, becoming one of the principal writers in TV’s early days in the live era.  He wrote for episodic television as well as the drama anthology series that were popular in the early 1950s.  What’s arguably his best-known play, The Trip to Bountiful, premièred on NBC television in 1953 before débuting on Broadway (with Lillian Gish and Eva Marie Saint appearing in both productions).  Foote continued to write for TV right up till the ’90s, winning an Emmy in 1997 for his adaptation of William Faulkner’s Old Man.  Meanwhile, he was writing for the stage (Only the Heart, 1944; Six O'Clock Theatre, 1948; The Chase, 1952).  His stage plays became popular fare in New York on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Off-Off-Broadway, and in regional theaters across the country.  Foote also wrote for films, most notably the screenplay for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), winning him an Academy Award.  Other screenwriting includes Tender Mercies (Academy Award, 1983), Trip to Bountiful (Academy Award nomination, 1985), and Of Mice and Men (1992).  

In the mid-’60s, though, Foote’s writing, out of step with the headier (and often angrier) work of emerging writers like Arthur Kopit, Jack Gelber, Lorraine Hansberry, Adrienne Kennedy, Amiri Baraka, Sam Shepard, and Edward Albee, fell out of favor.  Then the Oscar recognitions of the ’80s raised his profile again and theater companies came calling.  Hallie Foote, the playwright’s literary executor, quips that “my father will be around forever.”  Next year alone, for instance, will see regional productions of The Trip to Bountiful by the Good Theater at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland, Maine (29-30 April 2017), and at the Waterfront Playhouse in Key West (24 January-11 February 2017) and Dividing the Estate at Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré in New Orleans (24 March-2 April and 13-15 April 2017).  Hallie Foote says she’s discussed with Houston’s Alley Theatre a staging of The Orphans’ Home Cycle and the trilogy may also appear soon as a television mini-series.  In addition, there may be another major Broadway revival of a Foote play, following 2013’s Trip to Bountiful, in 2017 and a musical adaptation of one of his scripts, to be co-written by Daisy Foote, is in development.  (The actress declined to name either play.)  In 1996, Foote was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame and The Young Man from Atlanta won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  In 2006, the dramatist won a Drama Desk Award for Career Achievement and on 20 December 2000, Pres. Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts. 

Foote died at 92 in 2009 in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was finishing the work on Orphans’ Home Cycle, which was to première at the Hartford Stage before coming to New York’s Signature Theatre Company.  The Trip to Bountiful received an all-star posthumous revival on Broadway, starring Cecly Tyson (who won a Tony for her performance) in 2013; it was filmed for television in 2014, garnering two Emmy nominations.  All four of Foote’s children have become theater professionals: daughter Hallie and son Albert are actors, son Walter is a director, and daughter Daisy is a playwright.

Almost all Foote’s writing, whether for the stage or the screen, original or adapted, “evokes a lyrical sense of place and strength of character,” as interviewer Ramona Cearley put it.  Indeed, he’s affirmed, “I feel that place is very important in my work.”  But he rejects being labeled a “Southern writer” or even a “Texas writer.”  “I’m a Wharton writer,” he insists.  Foote paints on a small canvas, but he’s exceedingly detailed.  “I try to be as specific about this town [i.e., Wharton] as I can be without being parochial.”  His characters, especially the women, have the sort of eccentricities common in the fiction of Southern writers, but they’re far less Gothic.  They’re also deeper and more complex.  

At his best, as in Trip to Bountiful, the dramatist’s small-town milieu serves as a microcosm for the human condition.  Even when the plays don’t expand so universally, as in Roads to Home, his prose is so evocative and poetic (he is to white Southerners in that respect what August Wilson is to African Americans—he turns them into what playwright-director Emily Mann called “poets of everyday speech”) that you can become mesmerized by his speeches and dialogue.  (That’s heightened when an actor like Lois Smith or Foote’s daughter Hallie gets a hold of the part.  It’s symbiotic: Foote’s writing attracts actors and then the actors use his writing to develop fascinating characters.  He’s not exactly actor-proof, but he is actor-enabling.  Wilson’s like that, too.)

On a par with his evocation of place and character, Foote also acknowledges, “I’m essentially a story teller.”  A voracious reader as a boy, the authors he names as important to him are all story writers: Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, William Faulkner, William Maxwell, Eudora Welty, Peter Hillsman Taylor, Flannery O’Connor, and Reynolds Price.  Furthermore, in  the Foote and Brooks families, recounting family lore and relating the lives of kin was a common pastime.  As a child, while his younger brothers—the writer was the oldest of three boys—were outdoors running and playing, Horton would be sitting on the porch listening to his relatives telling their stories. 

The dramatist was also something of a hoarder, as Foote interviewer Sheila Benson observes: he prowled flea markets and auctions to collect bits of Americana, folk art, and family mementos, much the way he collected the histories of his relatives and his neighbors.  Both of these collections, Benson asserts, were assembled “with wit and sureness and a touch of the unexpected” and the stories have been recycled into his scripts just as the people in Harrison Foote knew or learned of became the characters in the plays.  This phenomenon is indisputably the case in The Roads to Home.  It’s a play, as I said, all about stories.

The first playlet, A Nightingale (Act One, Scene One of the Primary Stages revival), takes place in the kitchen of Jack and Mabel Votaugh’s Houston home.  It’s early April 1924 and Mabel’s next-door neighbor and best friend, Vonnie Hayhurst (Harriet Harris), pays a call.  Vonnie finds Mabel (Hallie Foote) preparing for the expected but uninvited daily visit of Annie Gayle Long (Rebecca Brooksher), a young acquaintance of Mabel’s from Harrison, where they both grew up.  As she prepares coffee for her vistors, Mable tells Vonnie, who’s just returned from a visit to her hometown of Monroe, Louisiana, stories and gossip about Harrison and, particularly, Annie, whose behavior since she witnessed the murder of her father by his closest friend on the main street of Harrison has become decidedly peculiar.  When Annie, who lives across Houston but likes to ride the streetcar, arrives, it’s clear she’s slipping inexorably into insanity.  (Her neurasthenia falls somewhere between Alma Winemiller and her mother in Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke.)  In the midst of other conversations, Annie breaks into song (“My Old Kentucky Home” seems lodged in her mind) or points her fingers like a pistol and shouts “Pow!  Pow!  Pow!” at odd moments.  The older ladies are a little taken aback by Annie’s eratic behavior, but not really put off by it—as if it were a version of normal conduct.  Annie’s husband (Dan Bittner), who repeatedly asserts that Annie’s behavior is directed at him, arrives to collect her, but she resists and after he gets her out of the house, she returns looking for her children whom she thinks she left behind at Mabel’s. 

In the second play, The Dearest of Friends (Act One, Scene Two), it’s six months later, and Mabel’s in her parlor while her husband, Jack (Devon Abner), dozes off in his chair—waking periodically to ask if it’s ten o’clock yet, so he can go to bed.  Vonnie rushes in—no one in Mabel’s neighborhood apparently bothers with locking doors—in an absolute tizzy and we soon learn the cause.  Having heard so many stories from Mabel about Harrison, Vonnie and her  husband, Eddie (Matt Sullivan), took a train trip there to see what her friend had been talking about all this time.  (Both Jack and Eddie work for the railroad, so they get passes.)  Eddie’s become involved with a Harrison woman he met on the train and wants a divorce. Mabel and her husband sympathize with Vonnie’s situation—a good deal more time is spent figuring out who the other woman is than solving Vonnie’s problem—but, when Eddie shows up, dressed in his robe and nightclothes, they don’t get themselves directly involved even though the crisis is unfolding in their home.  

Act Two of Roads to Home is devoted to the third playlet, Spring Dance, set in a garden outside an auditorium in Austin four years later.  Annie’s been confined to the State Lunatic Asylum in the Texas capital and, all dressed in semiformal evening finery (the men are in black tie), she and her fellow patients—two young men she knew as a girl in Harrison, Dave Dushon (Bittner) and Greene Hamilton (Sullivan), and a fourth resident, Cecil Henry (Abner)—are attending a dance going on just inside the terrace’s French doors.  Annie, who won’t dance because she doesn’t think it’s proper for a married woman, behaves with scrupulous politeness as befits the genteel lady she still sees herself as; her companion, Dave, is essentially catatonic as Annie chatters on about her family and her life in Harrision.  Greene, however, is dancing up a storm inside and periodically waltzes his way out of the auditorium; he doesn’t seem able to stop moving to the music even though he has no partner.  Greene tells Annie that both he and Dave will be going home to Harrison for a month’s visit the next day, but we shortly discover that neither he nor Annie have any grasp of the passage of time or any of the other ordinary markers of life—they can’t remember, for instance, how long they’ve been at the asylum, when they last had visits from their families, or when letters with news from home arrived and Annie keeps smelling chinaberry blossoms, a scent from her childhood in Harrison, even though there are none in the asylum garden.  Cecil, who’s not an acquaintance of the Harrison contingent, enters from the auditorium now and then to ask Annie to dance, though she refuses his invitations each time; he has no more hold in reality than the others as he’s sometimes married and sometimes not, sometimes a father and sometimes not.

The Roads to Home was disappointing despite a good production.  It’s all talk and, more than that, it’s two hours of storytelling.  There’s virtually no dialogue—a few sections of stichomythia—as each character has long passages of telling tales about their pasts.  Ben Brantley said this in his New York Times review, but it wasn’t clear to me how static and long-winded the performance is.  The saving graces are that it’s Foote’s prose, which is still poetic and evocative, and the cast, which is excellent.  These aren’t enough to remedy the total lack of theatricality and action—the three narratives really ought to have been Tennessee Williams-type short stories—but they managed to prevent the evening from being unbearable.  

Furthermore, these nearly-plotless little snapshots of a particular place, time, and selection of personalities don’t illuminate 21st-century America, much less the human universe.  As the Washington Post’s Michael Toscano aptly said of the play (in another, unrelated production): “‘The Roads to Home’ provides a pleasant journey, but eventually you can’t help asking where those roads lead.  They provide the theatrical equivalent of a scenic Sunday afternoon drive rather than taking you to any meaningful destination.”  As portrait miniatures, the three playlets aren’t unappealing or uninteresting, but revealing they’re not. 

They’re also not especially engaging since while I felt for the characters and their problems, I didn’t feel with them; I couldn’t identify with anyone on the stage.  Foote has asserted that he’s “just never had a desire to write about any place” other than Wharton/Harrison, although he admits to having “tried to write about New York, . . . and the work just doesn’t have the same ring of authenticity as when I write about” his hometown.  But “because the things that happen [in Wharton] can happen in a big city,” as the dramatist insists, and “emotional life doesn’t vary very much” from one place to the next, Foote’s best plays always rise to a level of universality.  The world of Roads didn’t expand beyond the time and place of its setting.  In a sense, the best Foote plays, like Bountiful, unfold in living color, but Roads is sepia-toned.  Since Roads has been staged twice before in New York, it’s not an unknown quantity.  With all the Foote plays available—he had a long career and was pretty prolific—I wonder why Primary Stages chose this one to revive for his centennial.

Though Roads isn’t Foote’s best work, the three playlets still present detailed and sensitive portraits of Southern women (as depicted in literature, if not in real life) and the genteel life of the playwright’s small-town milieu.  Like his best writing, the characters, especially the women in Roads are meticulously drawn, providing the excellent actresses meat enough to create deep characterizations.  The same is true of the settings: Foote’s plays evoke such a palpable sense of place and atmosphere that designers like Primary Stages’ Jeff Cowie (sets) and David C. Woolard (costumes) are inspired to devise a physical stage environment that breathes authenticity in minute detail. 

Though the one-acts are connected by recurring characters and snippets of situations—Annie, for instance, is clearly headed for insanity in Nightingale and then in Dearest of Friends, we hear that she’s been committed to the state hospital (Mabel even talks about writing to her) before we encounter her there in Spring Dance—the overall arc of Roads to Home is diffuse and makes no general point.  (The playlets are separated and announced by title slides projected on a black background like in a silent movie, a pastime which we learn is important in the ladies’ lives.)  The closest Foote comes to a unifying theme is a look at people displaced by their economic, personal, or, in Annie’s case, psychological situations, trying to find their way back to the safety of home (i.e., Harrison or, for Vonnie, Monroe).  Harrison may be less than 60 miles from Houston, but the comfort of home is out of reach.  Furthermore, Foote is suggesting, home may not even be so safe anymore.  (In addition to the cautionary stories Mabel and Annie tell about Harrison—and some of Vonnie’s tales of Monroe are no more comforting—it’s notable that two of the men interned at the asylum with Annie are from Harrison and when Mabel visits the town, her marriage is destroyed.)  Even the individual one-acts have no resolutions—we never find out, for example, what happens to Vonnie and Eddie or what becomes of Annie—they just trail off when Foote runs out of story.  Or stories, since, as the playlets have no plots of their own, the fabric of each play is the tales the characters tell one another. 

Primary Stages gives The Roads to Home an attractive and well-mounted production at the Cherry Lane.  I’ve already mentioned briefly the set and costume designs, so let me expand on the physical production first.  The first two one-acts are the most closely connected and director Michael Wilson presents them as two scenes of the first act, so scenic designer Cowie integrates them by making the parlor set of Dearest of Friends the flipside of the kitchen set in Nightingale.  The back wall of the kitchen is indicated by a couple of hanging cabinets over the sink and stove, but there’s no actual wall; in fact, Mabel steps into her living room to make a phone call during Nightingale.  In Dearest of Friends, the reverse set-up is used and the scene change employs a revolving set to strike the kitchen and reveal the parlor, reinforcing the illusion that these are two neighboring rooms in the same house, both of which look well lived-in.  As I observed earlier, Cowie includes many small details in the set decoration and Wilson makes sure there are many homey hand props for the actors, especially the women, to handle, such as coffee cups and saucers, tea cakes, and bottles of Coke.  It’s a very everyday world.

David C. Woolard’s clothing is not only visually evocative of mid-’20s small-town Texas, but it conjures up an entire world.  (Houston, a large city today of nearly 2½ million people, is portrayed in Roads as an oversized village; as I already noted, he characters in the play never bother to lock their doors.  Its population in 1920 was under 140,000 and, what’s more, the neighborhood where Mabel and Vonnie live is virtually an extension of Harrison.)  The house dresses Mabel and Vonnie wear in Act One suit this world and the two women like uniforms; there’s no doubt they live in these clothes.  The same is true of Annie’s dressier visiting outfit and the men’s work attire, whether Mr. Long’s business suit or Jack’s railroadman’s working duds.  Even the formal wear of Annie and her young men in Spring Dance seem somehow fitting as the dress of people of means and station in their world, even as they seem almost comically out of place at the mental hospital.  But that, of course, is part of Foote’s world, too.

Alongside the lighting of David Lander and the soundscape of John Gromada, it all brings to life the milieu of this group of people at a particular time in southeastern Texas.  If the chinaberry blossoms weren’t all in Annie’s head, I might have smelled them myself (if I knew what chinaberry blossoms smelled like, of course—but you know what I mean).  On top of this, the acting completes the illusion of stepping back almost a century into a small southwestern town; it’s like experiencing a holodeck program on Star Trek:TNG’s Enterprise.  What I don’t know for sure is whether the physical environment inspired the actors or whether they’d have managed the same feat even on a bare stage.  Given the stature of the cast, however, I’m gong with option 2 but with the caveat that, like all good actors, the set, costumes, lights, and sound fed their already activated imaginations.  Stanislavsky’d eat it up!

Since the plays are about the women, the three actresses have the spotlight throughout Roads to Home.  Bittner, Abner, and Sullivan all do creditable jobs with their various roles, but the men, especially the three husbands, pretty much function as catalysts, sounding boards, and rationales for the women to tell their stories.  All three actors do this solidly.  (It might help that in two of the couples, the actors are real-life significant others: Hallie Foote and Devon Abner, the Votaughs, are married, and Harriet Harris and Matt Sullivan, the Hayhursts, are partners.) 

Hallie Foote, often called the theater’s best interpreter of her father’s characters, is close to astounding in her portrayal of Mabel.  Knowing a little about how Horton Foote developed his characters from people he knew in Harrison, often members of his family, I assume Mabel was drawn from someone real, and it’s almost as if the actress knew her (or them) just as well.  (When I saw Hallie Foote in The Orphans’ Home Cycle 6½ years ago, she was playing women whose descendant she is and I said of her work that “she almost seems to be living the plays rather than acting in them.”)  If Primary Stages’ Roads were all about the acting alone, Hallie Foote’s personification of Mabel Votaugh would make the evening.  She doesn’t miss a note; her every gesture is unimpeachably right.  As a lesson in Stanislavskian acting technique, if you could bottle it and sell it, it’d be worth a million bucks!

Harris and Brooksher, as Vonnie and Annie, both inhabit vivid and astutely conceived characters.  Brooksher’s Annie can be annoying when she goes on apparently endlessly in her delusional world, but that’s more in the writing than the acting.  The actress manages very well to make Annie the subject of deserved concern and sympathy, both from her older friends on stage and from the audience.  (This, in turn, makes Bittner’s Mr. Long seem the more callous when he tries to coax her back home in Nightingale, but I believe that’s also deliberate on Foote’s part.)  Beneath the veneer of delusional confidence, Brooksher maintains a core of a little lost girl which is only revealed overtly in a few instances.  We see the persona she’s been brought up to show the world and which her husband prefers—but, as an acting teacher of mine would say, Brooksher’s “up to something.”  Harris’s Vonnie, who provides the small instances of comic relief in what’s an increasingly melancholic evening, is the character with the most dramatic arc in the play.  As Vonnie goes from sisterly neighbor and friend who helps Mabel cope with Annie’s going over the edge to the distraught wife of a philandering husband in a disintegrating marriage, Harris essentially sublimes from kindly concern in Nightingale to near hysteria in Dearest of Friends.  Though the shift occurs between Scene One and Scene Two and Foote doesn’t lay any groundwork for it, Harris makes the transition entirely believable—and justifiable. 

Wilson, by now a dab hand at Footian melodrama (he’s also directed both the 2013 Broadway revival of The Trip to Bountiful and its TV film adaptation the next year, garnering him a DGA best-director nomination; the Tony-nominated 2008 Broadway mounting of Dividing the Estate; and Off-Broadway productions of The Carpetbaggers and The Day Emily Married), wrings just about all the poignancy and drama out of the static script as he can.  With the help of the superb actors, whom Wilson has apparently encouraged to follow their unerring instincts, he’s managed to stage the three little character studies with sensitivity but without letting them sink into sentimentalism.  Foote himself warned, “I think sentimentality is an evasion of reality, it’s just not looking at the truth of the thing.”  Roads to Home doesn’t reveal much about our world today—though it may say some interesting things about people in general—but it sure as hell looks squarely and piercingly at the society Foote limns in the three playlets, and Wilson, with the inestimable collaboration of his cast and design team, has made that real even if it can’t sustain two hours of theatergoing.  I can’t see anything any director could do to make that happen.

The press coverage of Primary Stages’ revival of The Roads to Home was light, possibly because, despite the quality of its production, it’s the second revival in New York City of a minor Horton Foote work.  Show-Score surveyed 15 outlets for an average rating of 81, relatively high by my observation.  (Among the missing from my usual suspects are the New York Post, Daily News, Newsday, and am New York among the dailies; the websites NJ.com and NorthJersey.com, which cover respectively the Newark Star-Ledger and the Bergen County Record; New York magazine from the weeklies; Variety of the theater and entertainment press; the cyber journal Huffington Post; and the theater websites Broadway World and both NY Theatre Guide and New York Theatre Guide.)  Show-Score reports that 100% of the reviews were positive; there wasn’t a single negative or mixed notice. 

Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, observing that ordinary life is “hard to put on stage,” asserted, “It takes a special kind of writer to find compelling beauty in the ordinary, and Horton Foote did it better than anyone.”  Calling Wilson’s Roads “richly involving,” Teachout said it “serves as a reminder that you needn’t set off firecrackers to seize an audience’s attention.”  “It’s impossible to say enough good things about Mr. Wilson’s production,” continued the Journalist, praising the cast for being “wholly conversant with Foote’s idiom.”  The play “feels a bit thin here and there, relying as it does on the relaxed rhythms of casual conversation to make its dramatic effect,” complained Teachout, but in a well-mounted production like Primary Stages’, “you’ll be more than content to sit and listen—and marvel.” 

In the New York Times (which received Show-Score’s lowest rating, one of two 70’s in the website’s survey), Ben Brantley affirmed that “talking is close kin to breathing, and almost as essential to [the] survival” of the women of “this plaintive, meandering trilogy,” who “are all displaced persons of a sort.”  “Gabbiness,” explained the Timesman, is “an existential force . . . in Foote’s world.”  Acknowledging that the “loose-jointed triptych hardly ranks among Foote’s finest work,” Brantley said that Roads “lacks the seamlessness of Foote at his best” and the play’s dialogue, which Brantley complained “can seem like monologues,” “seems not woven but nailed together.”  Nonetheless, Brantley admitted that for him, it’s “a home-baked treat too delicious to miss.”  Despite Brooksher’s skill as an actress, though, her Annie can’t help but be “a pain in the ear,” and Brantley wrote, “The heart sinks a bit when you realize that the final play . . . is all about” her.  The Times review-writer concluded that “it’s the onrushing ordinariness of [Foote’s] plays that makes them so very poignant.”

The Village Voice’s Michael Feingold posited that Roads to Home “offers . . . a quintessence of [Foote’s] disorienting approach” to dramaturgy, which the Voice writer explained is that “the talk” of his apparently realistic circumstances “tends to be the opposite of dramatic.”  Feingold was referring to Foote’s use of storytelling, which the reviewer found “unlike anything else in dramatic literature.”  Though the Voice reviewer described the lives of Foote’s characters as “often bleak,” director Wilson “handles [Roads] with ease, adding in exactly enough bright color to cover the basic darkness.”  Feingold concluded: “The performers’ vivacity reinforces the paradox: Spacious, sunshiny, and seemingly ordinary, Foote’s Texas is as spiritually dark as any Beckettian landscape.”  The New Yorker called Hallie Foote a “highlight” of the Primary Stages’ Roads to Home, the first two parts of which “are pure, if slightly undercooked, Horton Foote” and the third playlet forms “a jarring coda.”  The “Goings On About Town” columnist summed up the production by averring that “Foote fans will be fascinated to see the playwright dip a toe in Tennessee Williams waters.”

In the Hollywood Reporter, Frank Scheck’s “Bottom Line” was; “Although not major Foote, these works offer myriad subtle pleasures.”  He stated that Foote’s art is “on terrific display in the Primary Stages revival of The Roads to Home,” in which the “playwright frequently leavens these tragic situations with droll humor.”  Scheck reported that “The Roads to Home is less concerned with plot, of which there isn’t much, than with subtle character revelations” and that Wilson’s “quiet direction . . . enhances the cozy intimacy, as do the ensemble’s excellent performances.”  Labeling the play “a minor effort,” the HR reviewer concluded, “But it offers enough subtle pleasures to infuse us with the warm feeling.”  Time Out New York’s David Cote observed that the ”drama unfolds though folksy banter and recollected histories” and found that Wilson’s “firm, translucent production hits the right notes of melancholy, dry humor and nostalgia.”

Dubbing Primary Stages’ Roads to Home “a fine revival,” Samuel L. Leiter described the play as “a chatty, thinly plotted, occasionally comic, but ultimately affecting domestic drama about average, not especially dramatic, people” on Theatre’s Leiter Side.  Leiter concluded, “Home may be where the heart is, but the effort to recapture it, if only in memory, is nothing short of heartbreaking in The Roads to Home.”  On Theater Pizzazz, Brian Scott Lipton found that Roads “is like a welcome helping of comfort food” for Foote fans, even though it “isn’t exactly quintessential Foote.”  Lipton explained, “The comedy is . . . broader than usual, and the tragedy a little deeper,” adding that the production “not just coheres, but tickles the funny bone and touches the heart,” which is “a testament to” the director “and the excellent ensemble.”  Despite its minor status among Foote’s works, Roads to Home, in the opinion of the TP reviewer, is “definitely a journey worth taking.”

Zachary Stewart of TheaterMania likened the play to a “sepia-toned portrait” of the milieu, given “sensitive direction” and “gorgeously designed and beautifully acted.”  Still, Stewart found the playlets “occasionally absurd sketches” which, nevertheless, “Wilson and his cast are able to find real emotional depth in.”  The reviewer, however, warned, “Theatergoers who live for sharp-tongued exchanges and explosive confrontations are likely to be underwhelmed,” though, “if you take the time to slow down and really listen, you’re likely to find a vibrant epic within the subtext.”  On CurtainUp, Simon Saltzman acknowledged that Roads “may not be in the top tier of [Foote’s] canon but is . . .  framed by a engaging serenity and a gentle touch of sadness.”  The Primary Stages revival has “a sublime cast” and “fine direction” by Wilson; the settings, costumes, and lighting are all “first rate.”  Characterizing the Primary Stages revival of Roads to Home as “sensitive, lovely, and oh-so-slightly-underpowered,” Matthew Murray described the play as “sepia-tinted nostalgia” on Talkin’ Broadway (Show-Score’s other 70 rating).  The play’s “as fiercely magical and fiendishly funny as it is chilling,” averred Murray.  The direction, said the TB review-writer, “is focused but soft” and Cowie’s set “occupies its own region of memory,” lighted  “tactically, knowingly” by Lander. 

Show-Score handed out three top ratings of 90 to the notices for The Roads to Home, none to sites I usually survey.  So, in the interest of completeness, I’ll include Lighting & Sound America in this round-up.  In his opening line, David Barbour asserted, “Sometimes I think we have it all wrong when we call Horton Foote a playwright; really, he’s a composer, wringing music both merry and melancholy from the everyday conversation of his characters.”  Calling the playlets “delicate materials,” Barbour found them “handled with . . . sensitivity and perception,” though he regretted the intermission between the first two one-acts and the last because it “threatens to shatter the carefully wrought atmosphere that Wilson and company has [sic] so deftly established.”  “In other respects,” the cyber reviewer said, “the production is beautifully judged,” praising each of the actors and all the design artists.  Barbour agreed that Roads “is a minor work, a chamber piece in three movements, but it is no less resonant,” concluding that “in [Foote’s] hands, the deeply ordinary seems extraordinary.  And when his characters talk—oh, the music they make!”

17 October 2016

Woody Allen’s Recent Movies

by Kirk Woodward

[Like George Bernard Shaw and the Beatles (did you ever figure those two names would appear together in the same sentence?), filmmaker Woody Allen is a subject of some interest to Kirk Woodward, my friend of many years who’s been a prolific contributor to ROT.  Kirk’s last two posts on this blog have been about the great Irish writer (“Re-Reading Shaw,” 3 and 18 July, 8 and 23 August, and 2 September) and the Fab Four (“Now, Live, The Non-Beatles,” 27 September), and now Kirk returns with an article about reviewers (another favorite topic—he wrote a whole book about reviewing) and Allen’s latest films.  (Kirk also wrote about Allen before on ROT: he posted an article about “Bullets Over Bullets Over Broadway” on 29 August 2014.)  As in both “Re-Reading Shaw” and “Now, Live,” Kirk writes about his own take on things, based on his experience and observation.  And as with the recent past posts, you may disagree with some of what Kirk says in “Woody Allen’s Recent Movies,” but once again, I maintain that his thoughtfulness and perspicacity make his opinions and conclusions worth considering—even if you’re not a particular fan of Allen’s filmmaking.]                                                                                         
Woody Allen (b. 1935) famously does not believe in God or an afterlife. I hope he’s wrong, if only because I want him to be able to enjoy the critical praise his films are due, and I’m afraid he’s going have to wait until he joins the choir invisible for that to happen.

Many people, in the arts and in other fields, are taken for granted until they’ve passed on, at which point they are idolized. That’s likely to be the case with Allen. All his work – all 1100 or so hours of it – will (I’m guessing) then be issued in one collection, probably on some digital device the size of a toenail clipping, and films that are now essentially disregarded will be considered important for their imagination and creativity.

By my count, Woody Allen has been involved in some seventy-three films to date. He has written around fifty of them, directed forty-nine, and acted in some fifty-five. Obviously there is a lot of overlap here – I count thirty-eight films for which he was the (or in a few cases “a”) writer, director, and actor. (As best I can tell, I’ve seen about half of the total seventy-three.)

I’m not saying that Allen has been ignored, because obviously that’s not the case. He is the subject of a shelf of analytical books, mostly admiring. He is enormously respected in the film-making community, and actors say they consider it a career highlight to be in a Woody Allen film.

But the reviewers . . . ah, that’s a different story. Reviewers often write, so to speak, with their eyes on the rear-view mirror. In Allen’s case, they frequently don’t really review his current film, they review his past career.

A. O. Scott’s review in The New York Times (14 July 2016) of Allen’s most recent film, Café Society (2016), is a typical example. Even the headline for the review – likely not written by Scott, of course – reads, “‘Café Society Isn’t Woody Allen’s Worst Movie” – a reference to Allen’s career right there – and Scott goes on to describe the film as “neither an example of bad, late Woody Allen nor much in the way of return to form.”

Wendy Ide in The Guardian (4 September 2016) writes, “It’s not in the same league as Allen’s finest work, but neither is it a honking misfire like Magic in the Moonlight.” Adam Graham in the Detroit News (29 July 2016) says “. . . it doesn’t reach the heights of Woody’s best . . . .” Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post (21 July 2016) says, “With each succeeding year, Allen’s insular version of the past feels more eccentric.” Examples can be multiplied.

To my mind this is both this strikes me as both a lazy and an offensive approach for a reviewer to take. I say “offensive” because it patronizes an artist who has made significant contributions to film, to comedy, and for that matter to culture. I say “lazy” because what I would describe as a ho-hum attitude of superiority is an easy one for a reviewer to assume – unearned, but easy.

I maintain that a reviewer’s responsibility is to confront the work at hand. I want to know, as if I had never seen another movie, what this one has to offer. Only by approaching a piece of art that way, it seems to me, is a reviewer able to see and describe what might be new, significant, or even revelatory about a particular film.

The career-evaluation approach to reviewing strikes me as one step removed from the gossip columnists’ – “Old Woody isn’t the filmmaker he used to be.” What does that have to do with the movie at hand? But comparing past and present movies is an easy game. It’s also a bad habit.

No one’s art is the same today as it was yesterday. To take another example, Bob Dylan isn’t writing “Blowing In the Wind” any more. Why should he? He wrote it years ago. What’s he writing now? What does it have to offer? Is it valuable or not? Talk about what someone has done, and you won’t have to talk about what they’re doing.

As a result, a great deal of worthwhile work is overlooked. I would argue for the merits of a number of films by Woody Allen that are generally ignored – for example, from his middle period, Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Small Town Crooks (2000), The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), and Hollywood Ending (2002).

None of these are remembered as “Woody Allen classics,” and some were panned and/or did badly at the box office. All of them, I submit, would have been considered delightful work if they were not looked at as “Woody Allen films.” Under that burden they could not be “seen” for themselves.

Obviously I am expressing my own highly debatable opinions, but another point can be objectively demonstrated. There is no such thing as a “typical Woody Allen film” because his films are significantly different from each other. They are structured differently, they use different narrative devices, they have widely different kinds of characters.

Certainly elements recur. It would be remarkable if they did not, since one person, Allen, is their prime creator. (Recurring elements appear in Shakespeare’s plays too.) But Allen works hard to differentiate his films. He finds inspiration in numerous sources, and he uses a variety of narrative structures.

I would like to demonstrate this point by looking at five recent films that Allen has written and directed, and in some cases appeared in.

SPOILER ALERT: In order to discuss the various twists of these movies, I have to at least hint at some important – sometimes crucial – plot elements. If you haven’t seen Magic in the Moonlight and Irrational Man in particular, stay away from the following.

This delightful film was both a critical and a popular success; it won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, and earned the most money among Woody Allen’s recent films. The narrative hook in this film is . . .


. . . time travel. Owen Wilson plays a writer in modern-day Paris whose favorite time period is the 1920’s. Having problems both with his fiancée and with the novel he’s trying to write, he finds himself traveling, each midnight, into the Paris of that era, where Hemingway challenges him to box, Gertrude Stein reads and evaluates his novel, and Surrealistic painter Salvador Dali visualizes him as a rhinoceros. From a narrative point of view, perhaps the most interesting twist is that a detective, hired to shadow the writer, gets himself stuck in an even earlier time period, and can’t get out.

I enjoyed this film almost as much as I enjoyed Midnight in Paris, which is saying something, but the two are radically different. The mood of Midnight is romantic and serene; the mood of Rome is boisterous. A narrator introduces and closes the film (there is no narrator in Midnight). The film intertwines four separate stories told in differing comic styles; it crosscuts between the stories, but presents them in different time frames: for example, one may take a day, another one a number of days.
·         A not terribly successful opera director (played by Woody Allen) discovers a “natural talent,” a tenor who, unfortunately, can only sing when he’s in the shower.
·         An American woman and her husband, inadvertently separated, each become involved in potentially compromising farce situations..
·         Leopoldo, a staggeringly average Italian man, finds that for no apparent reason he has become a celebrity, with his every move, including what he had for breakfast, captured by the army of reporters following him.
·         Jack, an architecture student, meets John, a successful older architect, who accompanies Jack – visibly or invisibly, in fact or in imagination – as he tries to sort out his love life.
Together these four storylines form a sort of seminar on the possibilities of light comedy. The story of Leopoldo is particularly brilliant, in our age, when people frequently become celebrities for odd reasons (“reality” TV shows) or even for no reasons at all.

In this film, and the next, Woody Allen plays with familiar metaphysical themes – God, death, a meaningful universe. The center of this plot is literally magic: two magicians try to determine whether or not a medium really has supernatural gifts or not. More than that: the plot is literally an elaborate magic trick. I can’t say any more, in order not to spoil the fun for anyone who wants to see the movie, and I hope you will, but I don’t know any other plot that works like this, and it’s a brilliant idea. Some reviewers said the dialogue was uninspired. I suppose they mean that it doesn’t have a lot of gags in it – not that those would be appropriate for the movie, which is deliberately a period piece. A. O. Scott, in his review (24 July 2014), wrote, “Mr. Allen has had his ups and downs over the years.” Need I say more on that subject?

Irrational Man is a suspense film with a sort of Hitchcock construction to it, as a woman (Emma Stone) becomes increasingly aware that her philosophy professor, testing the idea that a universe without God is meaningless and therefore that every action is equally absurd, has committed a murder, and is likely to have to commit another one – hers. The climax of the action is brilliantly staged – it happens in the blink of an eye, and calls into question much that has previously happened in the film. Reviewers tended to say that the film was dull, which I don’t understand.

Unlike the movies discussed above, Café Society is a thoroughly, almost novelistically narrated film, which allows Allen to skip a great deal of exposition for the large number of characters, and move quickly to their central dilemmas. The love triangle between young Bobby, eager to get out of Brooklyn; his uncle Phil, a major movie agent in Los Angeles; and Vonnie, Phil’s secretary, is a strong story in itself – and the way the characters find out what’s happening is skillfully presented – but the story also allows Allen to demonstrate without preaching that “café society” – the life of the comfortably rich – is not life’s ultimate satisfaction. The bittersweet ending embodies this theme: just because a person has everything, doesn’t mean they have everything.

Even a cursory survey of the five movies shows how different they are from each other. There simply is no sense – even if it were good practice – to view these films as basically one long movie directed by Woody Allen. I can’t think of any equally prolific artist who has produced so many works of such variety. Certainly Allen’s films contain themes, motifs, and even plot elements that can be tracked from one movie to another – as is likely to be the case with any artist over a long career. (I cited Shakespeare as an example; I could also cite Eugene O’Neill.) It seems pointless to stop there, and not look at the way Allen handles his material this time.

A review, I maintain, should consider and reflect the work being looked at – not at something else. Criticism, as opposed to reviewing, can take a broader view, and a critical look at an artist’s entire career may be legitimate for a critic. Reviewing has a different focus. It reports on the work at hand.

I could be belligerent and ask what the reviewers’ outstanding contributions to art that allow them to patronize, say, Woody Allen might be. They might properly reply that their contributions are in the field of reviewing, and that a reviewer is an artist too. I agree, and I have no right to look down my nose at their accomplishments. I see much to applaud in various reviews, looked at one at a time. I just want reviewers to review Allen’s movies according to the nature of each one – not as mere signposts in a career. That, I submit, is the heart of the artistry of a reviewer.

[Kirk’s book about reviewing I mentioned in my introduction, for the curious ROTter, is The Art of Writing Reviews (Merry Press/Lulu, 2009), available to order or download at http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/the-art-of-writing-reviews/6785272; potential readers can also access this site through Spiceplays, Kirk’s own webpage, http://spiceplays.com/id7.html.  I also wrote a four-part commentary on Kirk’s book which I posted on ROT: “The Art of Writing Reviews by Kirk Woodward,” 4, 8, 11, and 14 November 2009.

[When the reviews of Café Society came out last July, I thought I spotted a similarity between the film’s plot and the plot of a Woody Allen play I’d seen Off-Broadway back in 2004, A Second Hand Memory.  I mentioned this to Kirk and he did a search to see if anyone else found the same connection.  Turned out, someone did: Don Steinberg in the Wall Street Journal of 8 July commented on the plot similarity and the blog The Woody Allen Pages remarked on the WSJ’s mention in “New Café Society Interviews Discuss Production And New York” on 7 July.  On 1 September 2014, I posted my 2004 report on Second Hand Memory on ROT.

12 October 2016

Van Gogh & Miró at MOMA (2008)

[Eight years ago next month, I went to the Museum of Modern Art in mid-town Manhattan, just four years after it reopened following an extensive renovation that added nearly one third again as much space to the existing museum.  Accompanied by my late mother and my frequent theater companion (whose guests we were in reality), our purpose was to see two new exhibits of artists Mom and I have always liked tremendously: Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) and Joan Miró (1893-1983).  I originally wrote this report, part of a longer one covering other events as well (including Fritz Scholder: Indian/Not Indian at the National Museum of the American Indian in 2008, on which I blogged on 20 March 2011), on 10 December 2008, before I started ROT; I pulled it from my pre-blog archives because, first, I thought the look back at one of my most pleasurable art experiences would be interesting in its own right and, second, I’m working on a play report for next week and haven’t finished anything suitable for posting this week.  (Hey, sometimes necessity is just a mother!)  I hope ROTters will agree with my estimation and enjoy the time trip.  ~Rick]

On Wednesday, 27 November 2008, the day before Thanksgiving, my friend Diana invited my mother and me to join her as her guests at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where she had taken out a membership this year, so we wouldn’t have to stand on line for Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night (21 September 2008-5 January 2009) and Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927-1937 (2 November 2008-12 January 2009).  We readily took her up on the gesture because both artists are favorites of both my mom and me.  (In fact, Vincent van Gogh is one of my all-time favorite artists of any genre and any period.) 

Fortunately for us, the van Gogh show is small so we could manage both exhibits in one go—with a lunch break in between as a respite.  We’ve learned from experience—we’re veteran gallery-hoppers from way back—that we can’t do two large exhibits at a time without our legs and focus giving out.  I love to read all the wall panels, and most of the plaques with the individual pieces, and that can draw out even a moderate-sized show to a two-hour walk.  (Sometimes the curatorial texts are more informative and interesting than other times.  The Dada show a few years back at the National Gallery of Art and, later, MoMA, in 2006, reported on ROT on 20 February 2010, was like a fascinating lesson in both cultural history and world events and put the art in context; the van Gogh texts were nearly valueless this time around.)  Also, with works like the Dada pieces and Miró’s, it’s interesting to see what media the artists used—those guys were all such experimentalists that they had habits of using really odd materials.  Miró, for instance, includes a lot of tarpaper and sandpaper in the works at MoMA and painted several works on exhibit on copper or Masonite (either the rough side or the smooth side, depending on what effect he was after).  One of Miró’s assemblies includes a painted (blue) chickpea!

We started out at Colors of the Night, whose focus, as the title suggests, is the nighttime paintings of the artist, starting, chronologically, with The Potato Eaters (1885).  The show, of course, included the gorgeous Starry Night (1889, and the only painting I can think of that inspired a rock ’n’ roll song: Don McLean’s 1971 “Vincent,” known as “Starry, Starry Night”), possibly my favorite of all the paintings by van Gogh.  Covering both exterior scenes and interior scenes lit by gas or candles, some dark and shadowy, like The Potato Eaters, others artificially bright, like Dance Hall in Arles (1888), the exhibit includes only 23 painting (plus 9 drawings and several letters by the artist). 

The curators want to make the point that night was a special inspiration to van Gogh (though we know that what attracted him to Arles and Provence was the extreme brightness of the southern sun and the colors that virtually assaulted him in that yellow light).  I suppose there’s a legitimate argument to be made for that point (if art needs an argument to justify an exhibit), but my suspicion is that someone wanted to mount a van Gogh show and, there having been so many just in recent years, that she or he decided there had to be a “unique” perspective to justify a new exhibit.  Anyway, that’s what it looked like to me.  Not that I care, of course.  I’ll accept any excuse to mount a van Gogh show; all I want to do is see the paintings.  And if The Starry Night’s there, or his sunflowers, or some of his portraits, I don’t even need a rationale.

This is why I said that the explanatory texts are nearly worthless in this show.  The justification of the displays and the brief discussions of the inspirations van Gogh had for painting some of the scenes (drawn, obviously, from his letters to his brother and others, some of which are also on display with the art) are often interesting on their own merits, but it isn’t really helpful in appreciating the paintings, which are fully self-explanatory as far as I’m concerned.  (When it came to Miró, his art is so complex and idiosyncratic—and he often had ulterior motives for his work—that the curatorial texts are more revealing.) 

The letters, which I have read before, are remarkable in their own right anyway.  I don’t think there is a similar kind of documentation for any other artist because van Gogh wrote his brother (especially), other family members, and artist friends and colleagues detailed descriptions of some of the paintings on which he was working or scenes he’d seen which he wanted to paint.  He wrote about their emotional reverberations as well as the technical aspects, sometimes even including sketches of the painting he was making.  The letters also often included specific indications of the colors van Gogh was working with or intended to use, and in some cases he has labeled the sketch itself with the color designations he was contemplating.  Now, the pertinent letters, unlike the wall plaques (which often quote from the letters), are fascinating commentary on the artist’s work; but we don’t need a rationale to line up the letters with the paintings.

It struck me as strained, too, that the exhibit of night scenes lumps outdoor painting like The Starry Night and the equally striking The Starry Night over the Rhône (1888) with indoor scenes lit by gas or candles, like Dance Hall in Arles and Night Cafe (1888), or even The Potato Eaters, which is barely lit at all.  The hour may have been the same, but the techniques van Gogh used to create the impressions were vastly different (especially the early work, The Potato Eaters, one of the painter’s first paintings). 

There also seems to be a significant difference, in a painterly sense, between the true night scenes, The Starry Nights, and the twilight landscapes like The Stevedores in Arles (1888) and Landscape with Wheat Sheaves and Rising Moon (1889), which have their own fascination because not only are they depictions of evening over the Provençale countryside, but they include workers at their labor, a subject that really did occupy van Gogh both artistically and philosophically.  (He believed that artists were also laborers, just in the fields of culture.  Artists, farmers, and dockworkers were kin, and labor was an ennobling endeavor.  The Potato Eaters was a subject van Gogh chose not because of the nighttime lighting, but because they were a family of farmers ending their work day with a meal in their homestead.  This was a subject worthy of art to van Gogh.  At least that’s how I understand the work.)  Further, the difference between depicting star- and moonlit night and rendering evening under the dying sun seems as great to me as capturing night is from painting bright day under the Provençale sun.  It’s a little like comparing apples and oranges by saying they’re both fruit!

By the way, it’s not true that the explications were totally useless.  I learned (or was reminded, I don’t know) that when van Gogh painted his night scenes, whether indoors or out, he used the available light at the scene and painted live, as it were.  It’s not so astonishing to picture the artist sitting in a corner of the cafe with his easel and palette while the drinkers and revelers enjoyed their evening.  Others had done that, of course, most notably Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901).  But to imagine the strange, red-headed pastor’s son sitting in the peasant family’s little parlor while they ate supper and drawing them, night after night for several evenings as the text describes, is certainly an odd image.  What must they have been thinking of this odd duck?  And to picture van Gogh standing on the edge of town or down by the riverbank at night, peering at his canvas as he tries to capture the stars twinkling above the town or the lights on the water without even a lantern to help him discern the colors of the pigments on his palette . . . well, it’s no wonder the Arlesians were sure this foreign artist was a fou roux (“crazy redhead,” Van Gogh’s nickname).  But what a fou roux

(Antonin Artaud, 1896-1948, by the way, insisted that van Gogh wasn’t nuts.  In his 1947 piece Van Gogh: the Man Suicided by Society, Artaud asserted that it was all a conspiracy of the establishment, especially the medical establishment, to keep him out of society because he saw too clearly and told the truth.  Of course, Artaud was nuts himself, so from inside his head, van Gogh probably did seem perfectly rational.  If genius can look like insanity, it’s no great leap to figure that insanity can look like genius, too.  Not that the two are mutually exclusive.  Being neither insane—at least, I don’t think so—nor a genius—that one I’m pretty sure of—what the hell would I know?)

Anyway, aren’t we lucky van Gogh passed among us, tortured though he was, for however brief a time.  You can have your Sistine Chapel and your Mona Lisa . . . give me The Starry Night any time.  (Really—give it to me.  I’ll take it.  No joke.  I will.  I already use it as wallpaper on my computer’s desktop!)

After our lunch break in the little MoMA Cafe 2, conveniently just outside the exit from the van Gogh galleries, we went up to Joan Miró: Painting and Anti-Painting 1927-1937.  (This had been a week for exhibits of opposites in art: Indian vs. Not Indian; Painting vs. Anti-Painting; and—by implication—Night vs. Day.  I just made all that up, of course; doesn’t mean a damn thing!)  Anyway, the Miró covers only ten years of his long life but is a much bigger show than the van Gogh (whose whole painting career lasted only ten years—though he produced around 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings, most of them in the little over a year he spent in Arles). 

Painting and Anti-Painting explores 12 of Miró’s sustained series from the decade of ’27-’37, and includes some 90 paintings, collages, objects, and drawings.  It’s also a harder show because, first, Miró, like Fritz Scholder, eschewed pretty pictures and was deliberately working to “assassinate painting,” as he put it, and, second, the 90-plus works in the exhibit, though they cover only ten years of the artist’s prolific career, have an intellectual subtext.  It is possible, even desirable from my standpoint, to see the van Gogh show as a walk through a selection of his work and just let the experience of the paintings affect you however it will.  But with the Miró work on display, even if you were inclined to do only that—a much harder task, I submit, with this artist’s work—you would miss a lot of the point of the exhibit, the experience.

Unless you just don’t like van Gogh—and I don’t want to hear about it if you don’t!—it’s hard not to enjoy, even revel in The Colors of the Night, regardless of the curatorial gloss.  First of all, I find van Gogh’s work almost entirely emotional—and I think he painted that way, too.  He didn’t intellectualize or rationalize much—he was a creature of feelings and senses.  (I think, at base, Impressionism is predominantly emotional: it’s a rendering of what the artist feels about a subject, her or his reaction to it.  Impressionists want to convey what they felt, not what they saw.  It’s more Stanislavsky than Brecht, if you will.) 

Miró isn’t about what he feels so much as what he thinks—and what he wants you to think.  We may see that his impulses are destructive, as far as art is concerned, but he has made rational choices about what to include in his art, what materials to use, what to leave out.  It’s not that Miró has no passion or doesn’t display it—he’s no Vulcan with suppressed emotions—but he decides rationally how he will convey his emotions as well as his thoughts and ideas.  This not only makes his work, especially when assembled in the numbers of the MoMA show, hard to encounter, but very dense.  A van Gogh painting hits you pretty much all at once as soon as you see it.  It’s a gut response, reacting to the artist’s reaction.  A Miró grows on you, your response or understanding accumulates; knowing some background or explication helps, too. 

I don’t need anyone to tell me what The Starry Night means, but with Miró’s 1927 canvas titled Un Oiseau poursuit une abeille et la baisse I needed some clues.  First off, it is one of the few pieces in the exhibition whose French title isn’t translated, which suggests something.  (The words are actually written across the canvas atop the images Miró painted, suggesting that the words are important.)  I looked on the Internet to see if there was an “official” translation of the phrase, and there really isn’t.  One site said that the words are essentially untranslatable into English (and another actually provided a translation that’s wrong).  So I went about translating it myself.  The first part is easy: “A bird pursues a bee and . . . .”  At first I mistook the last two words as a noun with the definite article: la baisse means ‘the fall’ or ‘the drop.’  (What our stock market has just gone through here was une baisse.)  In context, that doesn’t make much sense, though: “A bird pursues a bee and the fall.”  No synonym works any better.  Then I realized that the end of the phrase isn’t an article and a noun but a pronoun and a verb; la refers to une abeille.  As a verb, baisser means ‘to drop,’ ‘to knock down,’ or words to that effect.  So the phrase now means, “A bird pursues a bee and knocks it down.”  (The incorrect translation on the ’Net was: “A bird pursues a bee and kisses it”; the translator confused baiser, ‘to kiss,’ with baisser, ‘to knock down.’  Silly wabbit!) 

Now, the painting is extremely abstract—there’s no actual bird or bee on the canvas—but it’s easily possible to see the blobs and splotches Miró painted as representing such a picture.  As long as you’re armed with the interpretation of the words the artist put in the painting.  You can also certainly say that the painting bears no resemblance to a bird doing anything at all to a bee—but the process is still intellectual in part.  (A Frenchman wouldn’t need to go through the translation tsuris, of course, but he’d still have to do the interpreting and apply the text to the image and decide if there’s any correlation.)  This is the starkest example of what I mean, but it’s emblematic, I think.  And, at least for me, that’s why the Miró show is more arduous than the van Gogh, which is more exhilarating.  Not that both aren’t worthy—just different cognitive experiences.

The van Gogh exhibit is also a random excerpt of his work, taken from the whole decade of his career.  It may be a study of a certain technique—the painting of night—though I dispute it’s cohesive enough to be that, but the Miró is chronological and carefully arranged and selected so that it provides a view of the process the artist went through to get from where he began in 1927 to where he ended in 1937.  I could have started the van Gogh exhibit at the end and gone backwards, or careened randomly from painting to painting and had the same experience for the most part that I had going from start to finish.  If you don’t follow the Mirós in the order they are arranged, you miss the progression, the changes the painter went through as he experimented and developed new ideas.  (This is particularly where the wall texts help.  Not only do they point out the variations in technique and focus, they provide commentary from both Miró himself and contemporaries, including critics and other artists.)  What Painting and Anti-Painting does is reveal the arc, the throughline, of one artist’s journey at a significant point in his creative life.  Aside from the art itself, which can, of course, speak for itself, that’s a terrific perspective to have.

In Miró’s case, what he was up to in this decade was tearing down and rebuilding the art of painting.  (I’m not sure he had intended to do the rebuilding—I think it just happened despite his intentions.)  The exhibit is arranged into 12 groups of works, each set demonstrating one sortie in Miró’s effort to “assassinate painting.”  He approached this task as a sort of anti-Grotowski of painting: whereas Jerzy Grotowski (1933-99) examined theater and discarded what he determined was inessential, Miró examined painting and began to expunge what was essential, including, first, paint itself—many of the early works include bare spots of raw canvas—and even eliminating, as Holland Cotter’s New York Times review (“Miró, Serial Murderer of Artistic Conventions,” 31 October 2008) puts it, the artist himself.  (To continue the theatrical analogy, there’s something Artaudian in Miró’s drive to destroy painting, just as Artaud wanted to destroy theater.) 

At 34, Miró had already established himself as an artist.  He had succeeded as a Surrealist, having moved to Paris in 1920 when the movement began, and had also been influenced by Surrealism’s predecessor, Dadaism—a resolutely anti-aesthetic cultural movement that grew out of the aftermath of World War I and the devastations of mechanized war and the mechanized society.  Restless and endlessly inquisitive, Miró needed to move on to something new, even radical (a trait he shared with his fellow Spaniard and another influence, Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973), but there wasn’t anything on the horizon, so he realized he’d have to invent it for himself and the first step, he famously declared, was to erase what had gone before.  The ten years that followed were occupied by the painter’s efforts to overthrow the established forms by whatever means he could imagine.  His impulse to change everything was exacerbated and informed by world events that overtook him: the rise of fascism (in Italy in 1922 and Germany in 1933) and the Spanish Civil War in his native country (1936-39), the harbinger of another world war. 

It’s little wonder, it seems to me, that an artist might renounce conventional beauty in art—just as the Dadaists saw the destructiveness of machines and technology and abandoned soothing aesthetics for more provocative techniques.  Oddly perhaps, both the Dadaists and Miró could still create a kind of frightening and disquieting beauty—like the menacing splendor of a lava flow or the chilling grace of a shark.   In The Poetics, Aristotle said that we get pleasure in drama even from seeing things we would regard with disgust if encountered in reality because we learn from them, and learning gives us pleasure; the same must be true of art in any form. 

After having discarded paint, the defining medium of the art of painting, Miró moved on to eliminating painterly craft.  In Spanish Dancer I (1928), the artist assembled colored paper, sandpaper, and a cut-out of a woman’s shoe on a wood panel.  There’s not one image or object which Miró created, nothing which required his artistic skill (or any paint or pigment he applied to the collage).  Later, Miró began to mangle art history as well, with his deconstructions of old masters, as Dutch Interior I (1928), the artist’s take on Hendrik Martensz Sorgh’s The Lutanist (1661), a painting of a reclining woman being serenaded by a suitor, or La Fornarina (1929), a seated nude portrait of Raphael’s lover, which both end up in Miró’s versions as his familiar amoeba-like blobs in garish colors such as yellow, red, and brown.  In the end, Miró returned to painting (and his works after 1937 seem less angry and volatile), but in this developmental decade, the artist engaged collage and assemblage and built art from unlikely found materials and ready-mades.

[Mom and I had always enjoyed van Gogh shows, but things didn’t always work out for us.  I went down to D.C. for the year-end holidays in 1998 and my mother and I had planned to see the van Gogh exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, Van Gogh's Van Goghs (4 October 1998-3 January 1999), but the show was so popular that Mother couldn’t get tickets—NGA, whose admission is free, did issue tickets for entry to this exhibit to control attendance—even after standing in line one afternoon in the hope of getting lucky.  In contrast, several years later, Mom and I saw Joan Miró: The Ladder of Escape (6 May-12 August 2012) at the NGA’s West Building.  (I blogged on this show on 5 October 2012.)]