Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Bronx Tale

This show left such a bad taste in my mouth I don’t even feel like writing about it. What it amounts to basically is a 90-minute sentimental look back at a Mafia kingpin named Sonny. This was a man who murdered people in cold blood, yet Chazz Palminteri in this autobiographical show presents him as a patron saint.

I don’t understand this glorification of the Mafia, but I was in the minority last night. The audience loved it. I wonder how a play would go over if it presented fond memories of any of the men accused of some of the sensational crimes in our area recently, those who raped and murdered the young women they met in bars or the two accused of holding the Connecticut family hostage, raping the mother and 11-year-old daughter before killing them and the 17-year-old daughter and setting the house on fire. Murder is murder. This play is a disgusting waste of theatre space.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Dividing the Estate

Stick around for the second act. That’s when this play comes alive. The first is mostly what I’ve come to expect from Horton Foote, folks sitting around doing lots of talking that meanders all over the place just like in real life. Only in the theatre this gets a little dull after awhile.

It’s in the second act that the fun starts and the play becomes a lot funnier than I remember Foote’s plays being. Much of the credit for this goes to the playwright’s daughter, Hallie, who is the standout in what is an otherwise ensemble presentation. She had my attention whenever she was onstage, no matter who was talking. Watching her even in her sidelines times it is clear she is completely Mary Jo, the greediest of the relatives in the squabbling Gordon family. She listens intently to the others and is always ready to pounce.

“What do you pay him,” she asks as the rest of the family politely allows 91-year-old longtime servant Doug to ramble on about his thoughts on anything.

Mary Jo has no time for pleasantries. She, her husband and two daughters have come from Houston to the family estate in Harrison, TX, for one reason -- they’re on the verge of bankruptcy and want money. The others have their agendas too, but none is as blunt as Mary Jo. Ms. Foote delivers her lines with perfect dry comic timing.

Another enjoyable performance was delivered by Maggie Lacey as the fiancé of Mary Jo’s nephew, although her character is funny in the opposite way -- she’s so sweet and sunny she’s a great foil to the rest of them. Lacey avoids making her one dimensional, hitting just the right comic sensibility.

The one performance that never hit the mark for me was Elizabeth Ashley’s as the matriarch of this bunch. She comes off more like a lower class in-law who doesn’t quite fit in with her middle-class clan. She doesn’t look or sound like a gentlewoman of the Deep South who would have her Bible always beside her; rather, she seems more as if she were from blue collar Baltimore, with an unconvincing southern accent.

But then, gentility is losing ground in this world where money has been squandered and the grand estate will have to be divided. As the family sits around the dining room table and Mary Jo’s daughter Sissie talks about her silver and china patterns for her upcoming wedding, Mary Jo pointedly remarks, “My silver and china pattern are both discontinued.”

“Mine too,” says her sister, Lucille, sadly.

This sense of transience, in its wistfulness and welcomeness, is true of Horton Foote plays -- and true of life.

Primary Stages’ “Dividing the Estate” runs through Saturday at 59E59 Theaters.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Overwhelming

Wow, what a play! I was riveted for the entire two hours and 20 minutes. Playwright J.T. Rogers has done an extraordinary job of conveying the confusion and terror in Rwanda in the days just prior to the 1994 genocide.

He uses an American family to do this. They are a college professor, Jack Exley (Sam Robards), and his family, Linda White-Keeler (Linda Powell), his African-American second wife who is a nonfiction writer, and Geoffrey (Michael Stahl-David), Jack’s teenage son with whom he has a distant relationship. Jack is writing a book about ordinary people who make a difference in the world and wants to interview his college roommate, an African man running a clinic that treats children with AIDS. He also naively expects this time in Africa to be an enriching experience for Geoffrey the way his college semester abroad in Sweden had been for him. “I don’t want to raise another American who doesn’t question,” he says, mentioning his students and their sense of entitlement.

“This isn’t Sweden,” Charles Woolsey (James Rebhorn), a U.S. embassy official tells him.

But Jack is optimistic, telling a Hutu politician that he believes the coming elections will bring democracy to the country.

“This is Africa, not Delaware with a lot of black people,” the man replies.

Linda also is naive, thinking she has arrived in “paradise,” but not wanting to be “another tourist waxing eloquent about mother Africa.” Even in the face of warnings she remains calm. “I’m from Detroit,” she says. “You think this is a big deal?”

They learn before long that Kigali, Rwanda, in 1994 is no Sweden, Delaware or Detroit, and certainly not paradise.

Tension mounts as the family learns that few people involved in the growing conflict can be trusted and that the American government knows of the explosive hatred enveloping the country but is unwilling to get involved. “You’re working on a book, I’m working on a pension,” Woolsey tells Jack while practicing his golf swing.

But when Jack still holds out the hope that America or some country will intervene, he is asked: “When has there been a country with a foreign policy based on the right thing to do?”

The final scene is an appropriately terrifying result of the clash of naiveté in the face of hatred and violence. I was breathless.

I don’t know when I’ve seen a new drama this compelling. I won’t be at all surprised if it wins a Pulitzer next spring. Thanks to a cast that is excellent across the board, it is the most theatrically satisfying evening I have spent in a long time.

What’s even more important, it has left me thinking and praying about what I should be doing in the face of similar atrocities now playing out in Darfur and the Congo. I don’t want to be one of those comfortable people who fail to see the suffering and violence. A program note suggests getting involved through organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, so I went online and got the application for Human Rights Watch and sent my check. It doesn’t seem like much in the face of such massive misery, but as Julian of Norwich said, Without God, we can’t; without us, God won’t -- meaning praying isn’t enough. We have to take action too. Luckily there’s still some theatre that can change the way we think, and act.

Monday, October 22, 2007

I Love a Piano

This was charming, a lovely way to spend Sunday afternoon, watching six talented performers sing and dance their way through this revue of more than 60 Irving Berlin songs. The staging at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts was simple, but the result was shimmering. It was like being transported back to another, more glamorous time, back before love songs had lyrics like “let’s get it on.” The romantic in me couldn’t help but love a show like this.

“I Love a Piano” follows the life of a 1910 upright piano with one broken key as it is bought and sold, abandoned and found again.  Starting in a music store, the piano moves through different settings and decades as a way of showcasing the songs. Using Berlin’s popular favorites as well as humorous lesser known compositions like “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil,” this show, which had never been seen in New York City, captures the spirit of a half-century of American history, from the ragtime rhythms of the early 20th century through the Depression and World War II, up to the innocent optimism of the 1950s.  With timeless classics such as “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “I Love a Piano” does more than define the music of a generation – it defines the music of our country. And in this time of anti-immigrant fervor, let’s not forget that Berlin was an immigrant. What a blessing to our country -- and the performing arts. As Jerome Kern said: “Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American Music!”.
This clever show was conceived by Ray Roderick and Michael Berkeley and directed and choreographed by Roderick.  It features musical arrangements by Berkeley and a cast including Mark Baratelli, Darcie Bender, Summer Broyhill, Johnnie Moore, Sean Schwebke, and Karla Shook.  Alex LeFevre directs the nine-piece band.

For me, the afternoon was a homecoming. The Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts is at Brooklyn College, where I taught for six years; for two of which I also was working on my MFA in playwriting. Brooklyn College is part of my soul and it was good to be back. I look forward to returning for other scheduled shows -- “The Nutcracker” in December, a concert by Mandy Patinkin in March and “Evita” in April. And trust me, it’s not hard to get there -- you just take the 2 train to the end of the line, Flatbush Avenue/Brooklyn College and you’re there. My friend Mary Sheeran, who met me there, remarked a couple of times about what a breeze it was -- no wandering around a strange borough looking for a place you’ve never been. Just come up from out of the subway and you’ll see the beautiful tower of BC’s library. Check out the future offerings and maybe I’ll see you there --

Sunday, October 21, 2007


What a disappointment. I’ve read this play and saw the old movie, but I had never seen it live and wonder how much that contributed to my letdown. It is a really talky play, at least in the first act. In the second act Shaw’s superwoman appears and that’s always entertaining. In “Pygmalion” the superwoman is, of course, Eliza Doolittle, and in this production she is engagingly played by Claire Danes making her Broadway debut. Unfortunately, for the most part, the rest of the cast sounds as if they’re doing a first read-through -- there’s just no life in their performances.

Danes gives no hint of being a first-timer, unlike other Hollywood actors who have tried Broadway recently; the worst of which has to have been Julia Roberts whose hands shook and who appeared so scared she could barely move and spoke her lines mechanically. Danes, on the other hand, seems right at home, she owns her space, to use a popular phrase. This is even more remarkable considering I was there on a critics’ night, always a stressful time for actors, and the performance following the Times review, which had panned her. Despite all of this she seemed fully in command of her character, and as if she were enjoying herself as well.

I liked two other performers -- Helen Carey as Mrs. Higgins and Boyd Gaines as Colonel Pickering. Gaines was moving in his most recent performance in last season’s Tony winner, “Journey’s End,” a production that had me in tears at the end.

An actor from whom I expected more was Jay O. Sanders, who had been fabulous as Bottom this summer in the Delacorte’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In “Pygmalion” he’s a wooden Mr. Doolittle, definitely sounding as if he were at an early reading and not the real thing.

The most damaging performance for the production, though, came from Jefferson Mays as Professor Higgins. Yes, we do all have an image of the character from Rex Harrison’s portrayal in the movie musical “My Fair Lady,” and yes, there’s an immature element to Higgins, but Mays plays him at the maturity level of an eighth grade boy. This never worked, not in any scene. Too bad. This actor bowled me over in “I Am My Own Wife,’” his Tony-winning role from several years ago.

Maybe this play just doesn’t transcend the test of time. I suspect, though, that it's this cast that drags it down. It would have been loverly to see it otherwise.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Meet your grace

“Contemplate how you are being asked to give your heart to God amidst your everyday activities. Be prepared to meet your grace in every circumstance of life.”
--Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Amazing Grace: The True Story

“I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I hope to be. But by the grace of God, I am certainly not what I was.”

The life story behind these words of John Newton is being told in a new musical in development by Christopher Smith. I spent Monday afternoon and evening in Bucks County, PA, attending rehearsals and a concert/reading of this show, “Amazing Grace: The True Story,” and was immensely impressed by the work and richly blessed by the experience of the day.

What a beautiful place Bucks County is, and what loving, welcoming people at Hilltown Baptist Church who hosted the event. Chris had told me the community had been tremendously supportive of him and his effort and, boy, did it show -- in the church people who volunteered and the 1,225 people who turned out, overflowing into two side rooms with video setups.

I had ridden out in the morning on the train with Adam Jacobs and Ali Ewoldt (Marius and Cosette in “Les Miz”) who were playing Newton and Mary Catlett, the love of his life. We were met at the station in Trenton by Rich Timmons, a sweetheart of a person if there ever was one. In the hour’s drive out to Hillside he told us much about the area and pointed out things of interest. Now I know why I’ve always heard that Bucks County is so scenic. It is. It was a nice treat for a New Yorker to get a lovely ride in the country with such a knowledgeable tour guide.

The afternoon of rehearsals was interesting, getting to watch the behind-the-scenes process. Rich’s wife, Julie, made sure we were well fed at lunch and dinner. I enjoyed getting to know the other cast members, especially April Woodall who played Mrs. Catlett, Mary’s mother. She has a gorgeous voice that closed the concert on a soaring note to the heavens.

One of the biggest treat’s of the day was meeting Karen Burgman whom I had done a telephone interview with for her beautiful CD “The Impulse of His Love” (posted Sept. 5). What a warm, loving, joyful young woman. Karen was the pianist for the event and also wrote some of the music. Hearing her play in person was a gift. In addition to the eight soloists, she accompanied a 60-member choir made up of high school students from the Central Bucks High School and West Choirs under the direction of Dr. Joseph Ohrt.

The concert/reading of 11 songs was moving and leaves me with no doubt that Chris has a viable musical in the making. And why not, with a story with so much drama -- the death of a mother at a young age and exile to boarding school, the troubled relationship between father and son, romance, slavery, storm at sea and the dramatic conversion into profound faith. It’s epic, and Chris has captured it all, which actually is a story in itself. A former documentary video producer and police officer, he is completely self-taught and still can’t read music; he composes by ear. But over nine years he has followed his passion and his call and brought the work this far. He thoroughly researched Newton’s life and the history and culture of his time, creating the book, music and lyrics for the show. His next step is to record a concept CD early next year in Prague or London, where costs are a third to half what they are in New York. He will then work on mounting productions outside Manhattan, possibly in Branson, MO, or Lancaster, PA. Then, if his dream comes true, and I believe it will -- Broadway!

The audience response was overwhelmingly positive, but the most touching comment came from a woman who told Adam she had been diagnosed with cancer that day and that the performance had given her great comfort and strength. That’s what a good faith story can do, and that’s why a show like this needs to be out there in the world. As Rich pointed out at the start of the concert, “It’s a true story that’s been waiting 230 years to be told.”

Please pray for this musical and all those involved. If you can, send a contribution or tell a producer. The web site is

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Ritz

This show about a straight man hiding from the mob in a gay bathhouse was probably funny in 1975 when it opened, but as a revival it’s dated. Luckily the evening wasn’t a total loss thanks to Rosie Perez who plays Googie Gomez, a talentless singer at the establishment who, because of the nature of the place, is often mistaken for a transvestite, much to her rage.

Perez is a gifted comedian. I’ve never seen her on stage, but I can still laugh when I think of her performance in the movie “It Could Happen to You.” She’s great here in over-the-top wigs singing show tunes -- “Peoples. Peoples who need peoples” -- in her very bad night club act.

The rest of the show, unfortunately, just proceeds in the way farces do -- lots of in and out of doors and running around -- only without the humor, at least humor that still works.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Don't mess with retirees!

Just got this e-mail from my friend Gina in Germany. I love it -- hope you do too.

From a retired friend comes this tidbit:

Working people frequently ask retired people what they do to make their days interesting. Well, for example, the other day I went downtown and into a shop. I was only there for about 5 minutes and when I came out there was a cop writing out a parking ticket.

I said to him, 'Come on, man, how about giving a retired person a break?'

He ignored me and continued writing the ticket. I called him a Nazi. He glared at me and wrote another ticket for having worn tires. So I called him a 'doughnut-eating Gestapo.' He finished the second ticket and put it on the windshield with the first. Then he wrote a third ticket. This went on for about 20 minutes. The more I abused him the more tickets he wrote.

Personally, I didn't care. I came downtown on the bus, and the car that he was putting the tickets on had a bumper sticker that said 'Republicans in 08.'

I try to have a little fun each day now that I'm retired. It's important to my health.

Saturday, October 6, 2007


I broke a vow to myself last night. I had said I wasn’t going to anymore Manhattan Theatre Club productions at the Biltmore. They are consistently disappointing, to downright dreadful. I broke that vow because of the cast, specifically F. Murray Abraham whom I haven’t seen on stage since the early 1980s when I saw him as Cyrano at my beloved CenterStage in Baltimore. That production and his performance were so marvelous I went back twice.

I also knew Alison Pill to be a new actor to watch, having seen her last season in “Blackbird.”

Unfortunately, neither has much to work with here. Both play one-dimensional characters, as do the rest of the cast in Theresa Rebeck’s play. And that’s just what I usually find wrong with MTC’s Broadway productions, mediocre to bad plays.

The plot revolves, and I use that word loosely, around two half-sisters fighting over the right to a rare stamp collection. The play is probably supposed to be a dark comedy, but the pace is far too slow to sustain a comedy and there is nothing funny, dark or otherwise, about the dialogue.

It certainly isn’t a drama because of the flat characters, clichéd scenarios and lack of relationships between these five people who just happen to inhabit the same stage.

One thing that did stand out as top notch were the self-changing sets by John Lee Beatty. They were a marvel to watch.

At least “Mauritius” wasn’t as bad as others I’ve seen there that had me fleeing the theatre at intermission, never to return. I kept hoping, faintly, that it would get better.

It didn’t.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Gloriae Dei Cantores

When I listen to this group I always think, that must be what heaven sounds like. I first encountered them in “Shining Like the Sun: The Chants of Transfiguration” (see May 31 review.) Then again with “Folk Mass,” which has a misleading title that sounds as if it will feature simple guitar songs; this group is far too musically sophisticated for that. (See June 13 review.)

Now here they are with two new recordings, “He Has Heard My Voice: Psalms of Faithfulness and Hope” and “Eclipse: The Voice of Jean Langlais.” Together they represent the voice of God to me -- loving and comforting in the first and majestic and powerful in the second.

“Voice” is my favorite of these two because the Psalms are a twice daily part of my life. “The Book of Common Prayer,” our Episcopal prayer book, has the 150 Psalms divided into morning and evening prayer for 30 days, so each month for many years now I have been praying all the Psalms. They are my friends, my comforters, my sources of strength. This recording in the Anglican tradition is the second in a series of three.

The singers of Gloriae Dei Cantores give radiant voice to the words I love so much, and when they are accompanied by the organ, they are the personification of praise. This group trained in England in its formative years. According to a press release, chanting psalms is at the heart of their worship, and members engage in personal study of each text. This deep love and understanding of the words is obvious in their singing. It is prayerful, poetic and joyful. I play this CD often.

“Eclipse,” with its organ and brass accompaniment, represents for me the more solemn, mighty side of God. The CD celebrates the centennial of organist/composer Jean Langlais, one of last century’s foremost composers of sacred music, with three of his masses -- “Messe Solennelle, evoking the terrors of the Occupation during World War II and the yearning for peace; “Messe en style ancien,” demonstrating Langlais’ love for Gregorian chant; and “Grant Us Thy Peace.” It is a powerful recording, beautifully played and sung, representing more than 40 years of Langlais’ compositions for choir, organ and brass. It is a worthy tribute to the man and to the glory of God.

To order these CDs, visit For information about Gloriae Dei Cantores, visit

Monday, October 1, 2007

What do you want to be caught dead doing?

I received this essay from Kenny Moore yesterday. His commentaries are always full of blessing and humor. I'm sure you'll enjoy this one.

I had to fly to Pittsburgh on business the other day and I thought I was going to die. Not that anything traumatic happened. In fact, the trip was uneventful. Just the same, I made sure I kissed my wife and hugged the kids before I left for the airport. I've changed my behavior to now consider that this might be the last time I see them before my untimely demise. I get similar feelings when I drive over a bridge or go through a tunnel. Attending a meeting in a tall office building or opening a piece of mail sets off the same alarm.

Airports have become the new chapels of the world. A flight on a plane has become a call to prayer. I'm also finding that it's kind of bizarre leaving my house at 4:00 a.m. to catch a 7 o'clock flight, when the airport "chaplains" don't even make it in till 6:00 a.m. I wind up waiting on line in the dark for an hour or more to bolster patriotism and protect myself from terrorists. I guess it's a spiritual thing.

Psychology 101 taught that most of us live our lives in a serious state of denial about death. Woody Allen said that he didn't mind dying; he just didn't want to be there when it happened. I like living my life that way. It helps me get on with it, remain productive and fight morbid thoughts. Even though I'm aware that I can buy my coffin ahead of time on the web and realize considerable savings, I still avoid the transaction.

However, my life wasn't always one that ran from discussions of death. Or eschewed meditations on the frail human condition. There was a time when it was different.

An Older Tradition

In my younger days, I spent 15 years in a monastic community. They had a spiritual practice called "The Exercise for a Happy Death." Sounds kind of morbid, but if truth be told, it was rather refreshing. On the last day of each month, you spent time alone reflecting on death. It was a chance to see what you were doing right and wrong. A time to leave behind the distractions of the day-to-day world, go inside yourself and get clear on what's important. There would be prayer services and a chance to confess your sins to the priest. Some would spend the time planning their own funerals. Eulogies were occasionally scripted and I'm sure some monks would have prepared PowerPoint presentations if there were computers back then.

There was something called a "Superfluous Box" that was put out for the entire day. The idea was that if you had acquired anything over the past month that you really didn't need or that encroached on your commitment to the simple monastic life, you were to deposit it in the box. It would be given to the poor or more needy members of the community. This was a chance to lighten the load on your personal journey to sanctity. Lunch was intentionally austere to keep the senses focused on eternity. However, "The Exercise for a Happy Death" always ended with full dinner and a special dessert. It represented a spiritual sense of humor: while we spent the day focusing on the grave, life still needed to be lived and celebrated.

Business Transition

My transition from the religious to the secular world has been going on for over 20 years. The most noticeable difference is that when I was in the monastery, 20% of my superiors thought they were Divinely inspired. In business, the number's up to 80%. As we aging baby-boomers confront mortality with cancer, strokes and wrinkles and I put my life on the line just going to work, I consider "The Exercise for a Happy Death" as a practice worth transplanting into the secular world. And my monastic roots are starting to resurface in peculiar ways:

1. I wake up daily with the prospect of death before me;
2. A brief prayer of thanks gets uttered as my feet hit the bedroom floor;
3. At work I become more tolerant of others, wondering if maybe they'll be dead sometime soon;
4. I spend part of my day getting quiet and going inside myself;
5. I write letters and cards to my wife and two young boys that get put away in a box in the basement. When I die, I've arranged that they'll be presented to them as gifts from the grave: expressions of love and remembrance from someone who's gone;
6. On the last day of each month, I eat a hearty dinner and partake of a special dessert to recall that I'm still alive and have other chances to cooperate with the Divine;
7. I give away things I no longer need and look for reasons to put a few bucks in someone else's palm;
8. I acknowledge my mistakes and make it a point to say sorry somewhere in the day;
9. I read obituaries in the newspaper for inspiration, hope and humor. I remain in awe of how the human condition works itself out with zest, flair and a slightly twisted sense of the sacred.

The final curtain

Steven Wright, the comedian, may have nailed it on the head when he said: "I believe I'll live forever. So far, so good!" I don't know if it is ever possible to get in touch with our mortality or fully comprehend the preciousness of life. And it's certainly been more challenging living outside the cloistered walls. I've personally had two near-death experiences over the years. I came away from both with a profound sense of clarity and thankfulness. But alas, it was short-lived. A few months down the road, I was back yelling at the kids, criticizing the wife and complaining about senior management. My therapist said it was a sign of normalcy. I felt like I had lost something precious.

To help regain some of what got lost, I take more risks to scare myself back into clarity. If I could be dead tomorrow, what should I not pass up doing for want of courage? "I wouldn't be caught dead doing that..." gets repositioned into "So what is it that I want to be caught dead doing?" Then I go out and do it. Some might say that's suicidal. I find it enlivening. There are consequences, though. I am living with significantly more guilt, as well as a marked attraction to tomfoolery. The propensity to say, "What the hell ... let's try it" has increased. My wife says it's gotten out of hand. I fear she'll seek revenge when she writes my eulogy.

Fortunately, there are the daily business reminders to keep me on track. All I need do is get ready for my next business trip or open an unsolicited piece of mail. New opportunities are presented once again. I'm learning to take advantage of them ... for who knows? Maybe one day it will all come to an end.

P.S. If you're thinking about writing me, give in to the temptation. I love getting mail ... and being influenced by what you have to say. Please e-mail me at

Kenny Moore
Author of 'The CEO and the Monk'