Monday, March 30, 2009

Worry and anxiety

"My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened."
-- Michel de Montaigne

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Prayer for healing

“Lord, we adore You present in our inmost being and among us. Draw us inwardly by the greatness of Your love so that we might taste that peace that surpasses all understanding and that, little by little, we might understand what it means to be ‘lived in’ by God.

“Heal the wounds of a lifetime -- body, soul and spirit as we wait lovingly upon Your presence and healing action within us.”

-- Father Thomas Keating

Saturday, March 28, 2009


“Joy and happiness are not the same thing. Joy is an internal process grounded in knowledge of spiritual truth, the ability to trust the wisdom of the Divine, and faith in the perfect and perfecting process of life. Happiness is generally a mental and emotional response to temporary external stimulation, in response to a perceived need. Joy is a state of being. . . Joy, because it is grounded in the spirit, has a more far-reaching and lasting impact. Happiness, which is more often than not based on something physical and tangible, can come and go, moment to moment.

“Joy stays with you no matter where you are and what is going on. Happiness is a response to where you are and what happens to you while you are there. Joy is the knowledge of unconditional love. Happiness is the quest for temporary pleasure. Can you have joy without happiness? No. Can you have happiness without joy? For a brief time, yes. Can joy lead to happiness? Almost always does. Can happiness lead to joy? Absolutely not! Whenever your state of being is dependent on external factors, it is temporary and not joyous.

“Does it mean you will never again experience a moment of fear, doubt, shame, guilt, anger or loneliness? Absolutely not! It means that when you are challenged by these pesky little varmints, what you know will shake you, slap you, rise to the surface and remind you that there is a strength in you that nothing and no one can take. Your strength will become your guidance, your protection and your salvation. Joy is the willingness to keep moving no matter what. . . Joy is . . . accepting and acknowledging that you are a creative being on a divine journey . . .

“It can be quite challenging to remain happy when we face the unknown, unexpected, unplanned events of life. This is why we must develop a sense of inner joy. . . Joy is a state of being fulfilled simply because you are alive. The difference between joy and happiness may seem like a very small thing, but when the wolves start chasing you, it can make a very big difference in whether you get away or if you are eaten up.”

from One Day My Soul Just Opened Up by Iyanla Vanzant

Friday, March 27, 2009

Exit the King

It was good to see Susan Sarandon on stage, a first for me -- and probably for most people since it’s been 37 years since she’s been on Broadway. Playing Queen Marguerite, she’s haughty and controlling in the revival of Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King, which opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

I’m not going to comment too much on specifics of this production because I have never liked absurdist comedies, so it’s hard for me to judge its quality. I’m actually not a big fan of comedies in general, but ones that rely heavily on farce and low comedy really bore me, and Theatre of the Absurd is full of these two elements. Perhaps when the show premiered in 1968 the form was shocking and exciting, but to me its tedious.

What I can say is that Sarandon (in photo) is commanding in this her return to the stage and fellow Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush gives an energetic, larger-than-life performance as the king.

Neil Armfield directs a cast that also includes a laugh-out-loud funny Andrea Martin as the maid, Juliette, Lauren Ambrose as Queen Marie, Brian Hutchison as the Guard and William Sadler as the Doctor.

The “plot” centers around a 400-year-old despotic ruler whose incompetence has left his once formidable country in near ruin. Queen Marguerite and other members of the court try to convince him that he will die in 90 minutes, but he refuses to relinquish control, even as he begins rapidly aging before our very eyes. The idea is certainly timely after George W. Bush’s disastrous eight-year reign.

Dale Ferguson has created powerfully colorful sets and costumes and Damien Cooper’s lighting is bright, and really fun in the strobe light scene.

Tickets for Exit the King, which plays a limited run through June 14, are available by calling (212) 239-6200, by logging on to Telecharge or by visiting the Barrymore Theatre box office at 243 W. 47th St. For more information, visit ExitTheKing.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

West Side Story

“. . . the minutes seem like hours. . .” Those words from “Tonight” properly sum up my reaction to this lifeless revival of West Side Story at the Palace Theatre. Director Arthur Laurents and cast have taken beautiful songs, inspired choreography and a story of hatred, love, death and forgiveness and turned them into an evening of boring, amateur-quality theatre.

I was looking forward to West Side Story, a show I haven’t seen onstage since a West End production in London when I was in college. What a disappointment to encounter another flat revival, so in keeping with the others in the 2008-2009 season -- Pal Joey and Guys and Dolls. Our Drama Desk category for Best Revival of a Musical should be changed this year to Least Dreadful Revival of a Musical. Voting will be a challenge this season, as it was last year for the opposite reason when it was hard to choose between such gems as Gypsy and South Pacific.

West Side Story was a groundbreaking musical when it made its world premiere at Washington’s National Theatre in 1957. It still could be dynamic because the show itself doesn’t feel dated. It’s just the execution that is static. Jerome Robbins’s killer choreography has been preserved and restaged by Joey McKneely, but these dancers seem to be just going through the motions. I’ve seen more passion -- far more -- in cardio classes at my gym.

And that’s the problem with the whole production, a profound lack of connection -- between dancers and their numbers, between singers and their songs and between characters. Their bodies are going through the motions, but no one seems present. It’s a waste of the classic music of Leonard Bernstein, lyrics of Stephen Sondheim and book by Laurents, especially since this is the first Broadway revival in nearly three decades and the producers have gone all out with an onstage cast of 37 and 30 musicians in the orchestra pit.

Matt Cavenaugh is a bland Tony who delivers the absolute worst death scene I have ever seen onstage. (Of course, if you’ve already come across as dead for two and a half hours I guess it’s pretty hard to make the real thing convincing). As Maria, Argentinean actress Josefina Scaglione is in her own orbit, George Akram as Bernardo is a cliché and, biggest disappointment of all, Karen Olivo (in photo with Shark Girls), who had been so winning in In the Heights, plays Anita like a frustrated middle-aged aunt .

While Laurents takes a laissez-faire approach to directing his performers, he was more aggressive with the script. For the first time Spanish is spoken in an attempt to make the Sharks and Jets appear equal, but since I don’t speak Spanish those dialogue scenes dragged an already dragging show for me, plus I felt left out when other members of the audience laughed. I know the story so I got the gist of what was being said, but I mainly just tuned out and waited for them to get back to English. I also know the words to the two songs they sang in Spanish -- “I Feel Pretty” and “A Boy Like That” -- but I would have preferred them in English.

Another change Laurents made that I don’t like is leaving Tony’s dead body on the stage at the end. He said in an interview that this is more realistic because the police wouldn’t allow a crime scene to be disturbed by letting the Jets and Sharks carry Tony away. That’s ridiculous! What’s realistic about gang members singing and dancing, in ballet movements nonetheless? The two gangs coming together is a mirror of the Montagues and Capulets making peace at the end of Romeo and Juliet, the Shakespeare play that inspired the musical. It was a beautiful touch and should have been kept.

Tickets for West Side Story are available by visiting or by calling (212) 307-4100.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


A more appropriate name for this play would be Abstract, since that is the style of painting it most resembles. But even that would be giving it too much credit. Impressionism, which opened last night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, may be set in an art gallery, but it is completely artless.

Press notes describe Impressionism, which is written by Michael Jacobs and directed by Jack O’Brien, as “the story of a world-traveling photojournalist and a New York gallery owner who discover each other, and that there might be an art to repairing broken lives.” I never would have figured that out. My reaction to the show was expressed by Katharine (Joan Allen), the gallery owner, when she said: “I don’t understand a thing.” Thomas (Jeremy Irons), the photojournalist, agreed. “I don’t either,” he says. Too bad the characters didn’t have the press notes so they would know what was going on.

Artificial dialogue is one of the problems, the biggest one actually. Another involves the memory scenes. In the one of Katharine at 6 we learn that she never wants to put her clothes on; in the Katharine at 30 flashback we meet a woman who doesn’t want to take her clothes off. What either of those incidents has to do with the middle-aged Katharine of the play’s present I have no idea. A third problem is that neither Katharine nor Thomas is interesting, appealing, sympathetic or any of the things that would make them into developed characters.

Other roles, also undeveloped, are played by Marsha Mason, André De Shields, Michael T. Weiss, Aaron Lazar, Margarita Levieva and Hadley Delany. 

The creative team is Scott Pask (scenic design), Catherine Zuber (costume design), Natasha Katz (lighting design), Elaine McCarthy (projection design) and Leon Rothenberg (sound design), with original music by Bob James.

O’Brien is said to have described Impressionism as a play for intelligent people of middle age. Well, I am both of those and it did nothing for me. The best part of the show, actually the only good part of the show, was the lovely projections of Impressionist paintings. I was just glad the show was only 90 minutes.

Impressionism plays through July 5 at the Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St. Tickets are available from, the box office or by calling (212) 239-6200. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ah, life in New York . . .

One recent morning I heard a truck idling outside my window and looked out to see a Department of Transportation worker in a cherry picker putting up a Don’t Honk/ $350 Penalty sign on the lamppost. A line of cars began backing up behind the truck, many of which started to honk.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Standing ovation, booing or . . .

Check out this Wall Street Journal essay by Terry Teachout. He proposes an interesting alternative to what have become automatic standing ovations on Broadway.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Cambria

With just two fine actors, one good script and a minimal amount of staging, this production puts to shame most of what I’ve seen on Broadway and off during this entire 2008-2009 season. I was informed as well as moved and entertained by The Cambria, and came away with a renewed sense of appreciation for my Irish heritage.

Donal O’Kelly’s play opened a window for me on a piece of history I knew nothing about. Before abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass became an iconic American figure, he found a home and respect in Ireland. A runaway slave and wanted man, he used false papers to book a ticket in 1845 on The Cambria, a Cunard Line paddle-steamer, and sailed from Boston to Ireland. The play tells the story of that voyage and his triumphal reception on the Irish shore.

The Cambria is directed by Raymond Keane and stars O’Kelly and Sorcha Fox (both in photo) taking on all the roles. Through voice and body language, they transform themselves into several distinct characters. O’Kelly shifts from being Douglass to a hateful southerner who learns Douglass’ identity and is intent on exposing him; Fox is wholly convincing as a little girl, an adult singer, a black male crew member and the captain.

Tension builds during the historic voyage as Douglass’ fate is in question. With a bounty on his head in America for being on the run, and being the target of great racist hatred for having written his life story, A Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, Douglass struggles to uphold his dignity and win over the captain who will decide whether he is returned to his owner in shackles or is free to pursue a new life in Ireland. The Cambria tells the story of how Douglass survived to become what Abraham Lincoln called "the most impressive man I ever met.”

This is an interesting and exciting chapter in the life of a man who, at the 1888 Republican convention in Chicago, became the first African-American to have his name placed in nomination for the presidency by a major party.  Before that honor, though, he had been greeted as a hero by the Irish people and spoke to mass meetings on platforms with Daniel O’Connell, the leading Irish politician of the day. About that time Douglass wrote: “I have spent some of the happiest days of my life since landing in this country. . . I look around in vain for one who would question my equal humanity, claim me as a slave, or offer me an insult. I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the same kindness and deference paid to white people . . . the truth is, people here in Ireland measure and esteem men according to their moral and intellectual worth, and not according to the colour of their skin.”

Sadly, a program note from the playwright says this would not be the case today. “If Frederick Douglass were to land in Ireland now, he would be less than impressed with his reception in a ‘dispersal centre’ on direct provision -- $20 a week. And his use of a false identity in transit would badly affect his chances of being granted asylum. He’d probably be sent back to where he came from. . . Maybe the time has come for us Irish to ‘choose our better history,’ and to let our choice be guided by Frederick Dousglass’s glowing report of Ireland in 1845.”

The Cambria is produced by the Irish Arts Center in association with Classical Theatre of Harlem and performs at Donaghy Theatre at the IAC, 553 W. 51st St., through Sunday, March 22. Tickets are $40 ($35 for Irish Arts Center members) and are available by calling SmartTix at (212) 868-4444 or

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The weather today will be . . .

I like to listen to the BBC because the journalists have such great voices -- everything sounds better with an English accent. This recording goes a step beyond. Enjoy this presentation of a BBC weather forecast, done in Anglican chant. What a hoot. And what harmonies!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Natasha Richardson

I’ve been praying for Natasha since I heard about her accident yesterday afternoon at a post-parade luncheon. Just the night before I had watched the movie Evening and was struck by something she said in a featurette interview. In the movie she plays Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter (in another nice piece of casting, Mamie Gummer plays a younger version of Meryl Streep) and she said she asked screenwriter Michael Cunningham to write in a scene with her mother because there wasn’t one of them together one-on-one. She said she told him she’d never be in another movie with her mother in which they play mother and daughter and I thought, “Why not?” It seemed an odd thing to say because I didn’t see why they couldn’t find another good script to do together. Now I pray she wasn’t being prophetic.

In January, Natasha and Vanessa did play the roles of mother and daughter in a one-night benefit concert version of "A Little Night Music," the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical, but it’s eery that two years ago, when she was only 43, she seemed absolutely certain that she would never again play the mother-daughter relationship in a film with Vanessa.

This illustrates once again for me the need, as my friend Peter wrote to me in a St. Patrick’s Day card, to "seize the day." She had the chance then and she made the most of it.

It also points out the importance of paying attention to our intuition. In the book Practical Intuition: How to Harness the Power of Your Instinct and Make It Work for You, author Laura Day says that we are all intuitive -- “you access your ‘sixth sense’ unconsciously all the time” -- but we need awareness and practice to develop conscious control over “this amazing faculty.” I don’t know whether Natasha was consciously or unconsciously following her intuition, but the result is she made a great decision and now there is a moving scene of the two of them together in “Evening,” an encounter we will have forever.

Monday, March 16, 2009

33 Variations

It’s been 46 years since Jane Fonda was last on Broadway, but you would never know it from watching her performance in this intriguing new play written and directed by Moisés Kaufman, at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre through May 24.

Fonda plays Katherine Brandt, a musicologist trying to solve a centuries-old mystery about why Beethoven, one of the world's greatest composers, spent four years of his later life writing 33 variations of what was considered a mediocre waltz by Viennese music publisher Anton Diabelli. She is perplexed as to why he would pursue that rather than his own great work, especially in light of his impending deafness.

Just as Beethoven had raced against time, so must Katherine fight a ticking clock to find her answer before the Lou Gehrig’s disease with which she has been diagnosed robs her of her movement and ultimately her life.

33 Variations isn’t a great play -- a couple of the minor plots are quite conventional -- but it’s extremely entertaining. I was involved from beginning to end. I liked the contrasting scenes -- Beethoven (Zach Grenier) in 19th century Austria with his obsession and modern day Katherine in New York and Bonn, Germany, with hers. The act one curtain closer interweaves past and present as each desperately cries out in unison: “I need more time. I must have a chance to finish the work.”

A wonderful touch is that we’re able to hear Beethoven’s music as he composes thanks to musical director Diane Walsh who plays the piano at the foot of the stage within sight of the audience.

The conventional subplots involve Clara (Samantha Mathis), Katherine’s daughter, and their difficult relationship and Clara’s boy-meets-girl relationship with Mike (Colin Hanks, in photo with Mathis and Fonda), Katherine’s nurse. When I say conventional I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s just that they’re pretty standard fare in an otherwise original story. I liked these characters -- and actors -- so I cared about them.

I also very much liked Susan Kellermann as Dr. Gertrude Ladenburger, a librarian at the Beethoven archives in Bonn where Katherine does her research. The two women develop a friendship, with Gertrude helping Katherine with her work, and her dying.

Rounding out the cast are Don Amendolia as Diabelli and Erik Steele as Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s secretary.

Derek McLane provides a great set, which is dominated by floor to ceiling file cabinets housing years and years of musical scores and representing nicely the enormity of the task Katherine faces. Other scenes, such as a cafe or computer repair store, are depicted by adding minimal pieces of furniture. David Lander’s lighting heightens the dramatic effect.

The creative team is also made up of Janice Pytel (costumes), David C. Woolard (additional costumes) André Pluess (sound), Jeff Sugg (projection design), Charles LaPointe (hair/wig design) and Daniel Pelzig (choreography).

33 Variations marks Kaufman's debut as a Broadway playwright, but he had already hit my radar screen for his Tony-nominated direction several years ago of the Tony-winning I Am My Own Wife. He is the artistic director of Tectonic Theater Project, the award-winning nonprofit theatre company behind such plays as The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.

While Fonda isn’t making her Broadway debut -- she did that at 22 in the 1960 play There Was a Little Girl for which she earned a Tony Award nomination for best featured actress -- it is the first time most of us are seeing her on the boards. Her last appearance on Broadway was in the 1963 drama Strange Interlude.

As Katherine, she portrays a strong, aggressive woman, a part that would seem a natural for her, but then she must show the stages of Katherine’s physical decline and she does this movingly and effectively.

Neither her performance nor the play are depressing, and the final scene is absolutely lovely.

Tickets for 33 Variations are available by visiting, calling (212) 239-6200 and at the box office of the Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 230 W. 49th St.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


by Ptolemy Tompkins, Guideposts magazine’s senior editor 

I’m not the biggest fan of the internet. Most people spend too much time on it for their own good (including me). But I accept the position of dominance it’s attained over our daily lives. Who doesn’t have a favorite website? If you ask me, the main commodity it provides is not information or entertainment or convenience, however, but something much more elemental and mysterious: connection.

There’s a feeling I get when I hear that unearthly beep-and-static noise that our home dial-up computer makes when it’s hooking up to the internet. Suddenly I’m not alone anymore. I’m in contact with a huge, invisible grid. A larger world. The very words on my screen spell it out: “Establishing connection.”

This is not new. The need to connect to something larger is one of the oldest—perhaps the oldest—of human yearnings. And the most time-honored way of satisfying it is prayer. As Philip and Carol Zaleski point out in their new book, Prayer: A History, there’s strong evidence that Neanderthals enjoyed a rich prayer life 50,000 years before the time of Christ. Prayer is the original internet—the way of contacting, individually and communally, a power that really and truly is larger in every way imaginable. Prayer links us to the cosmos.

But it isn’t always the easiest connection to maintain. Prayer can take work and practice. Sometimes, when I attempt to pray, I feel the way I do when I push the “start” button on my computer and the screen stays dark. I just can’t get started. I try but I can’t establish that connection.

“I have been a parish minister for twenty-five years,” writes Joel B. Jewell in his new book, The Elements of Prayer, “and during that time the most common problem among my parishioners, the cause of their greatest consternation, has been prayer. Everybody believes in it and feels it’s necessary. But a lot of people do not think they really know how to do it.”

Philip Yancey—author of Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference? —agrees. “Nine in ten of us pray regularly,” says Yancey, “and three out of four claim to pray every day.” But when Yancey interviewed people about the specifics of their prayer life, he often ran into answers like this. “How often do you pray? Every day. How long? Five minutes—well, maybe seven. Do you find prayer satisfying? Not really.”

In theory, says Yancey, “prayer is the essential human act, a precious point of contact with the God of the universe. But in practice it’s often fraught with frustration.” Which is in large part why all three of these new books were written. Here are some tips from Yancey, Jewell and the Zaleskis to help keep your prayer life vital.

Keep It Big
Whether or not we mean to, most of us have a habit of making God smaller than he really is. “Everyone approaches God with a set of preconceptions gleaned from many sources,” says Yancey. “Church, Sunday school lessons, stray comments by believers and skeptics alike.” Such images aren’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, without mental images of some kind, it would be impossible to think about God at all. But we need to remember that the God who we clothe in these images is in truth much bigger than we can actually imagine. When we’re not shrinking God down, we’re often busy doing just the opposite, shrinking ourselves down, pretending that God is too big and too important to hear us. Who am I to bother God with my problems? we ask. God doesn’t have time to listen to me.

 Wrong. When we pray, we are entering God’s time—eternity. And eternity is very different from time as we ordinarily experience it. Rather than picture God as a busy switchboard operator juggling incoming requests, we should think of him as a deeply relaxed and sympathetic listener, a power who can absorb all of our thoughts and prayers and needs. As Jewell writes: “To enter God’s time is to accept that he is always available. He’s not hiding way off in the future. God is available now.” And as Yancey puts it, “The common question, ‘How can God listen to millions of prayers at once?  betrays an inability to think outside time. God’s infinite greatness, which we would expect to diminish us, actually makes possible the very closeness that we desire. A God unbound by our rules of time has, quite literally, all the time in the world for each one of us.”
Keep It Real

In the best moments of our prayers, we are both honest with God about what we want and clear in our understanding that God may or may not give it to us. “Praying won’t necessarily resolve your vexing concerns, but it will help you identify them and keep them in perspective,” says Jewell. Therefore, “the first requirement is that you be honest with yourself. By addressing your real self to another Self, the One who tells Moses his name is ‘I Am,  you are finding your own place in the universe. From that point, everything else begins.”

Does this really mean that God doesn’t always answer our prayers? We should not only accept this fact, but embrace it. Prayer, says Yancey “is cooperation with God, a consent that opens the way for grace to work.” But a God who simply answered all of our prayers without question bears more resemblance to a child’s idea of Santa Claus than to the huge and unfathomable force God is.

Keep It Personal
“The main purpose of prayer,” writes Yancey, “is not to make life easier, nor to gain magical powers, but to know God.” To know God not as some extra-dimensional power, but as a being whose knowledge of us is intimate past all imagining—who knows us, as the Gospels proclaim, better than we know ourselves.

But while we may believe this in theory, it’s often hard not to put on our “prayer masks” when we speak to God, as if we could somehow control how he sees us. “Prayer is the one communication where it is utterly safe to be who you really are. God expects your true self to show up,” says Jewell. But it’s not like this is always that easy to do.

There’s a good role model for us to follow. Nowhere does the personal nature of prayer shine forth more than in the New Testament. “Jesus set the pattern for prayer as a continuous mode of friendship,” writes Yancey. “The Old Testament contains many beautiful and magnificent prayers,” but those were usually led by kings or prophets. With the New Testament, however, all of that changes. “Some scholars,” Yancey tells us, “suggest that Jesus virtually invented private prayer. No one in the Old Testament directly addressed God as ‘Father,  whereas Jesus did so 170 times.”

Keep It Simple
In prayer, Jewell says, “you are revealing your depths to God and to yourself.” It is precisely for this reason that clear expression is so important. As with writing, Jewell suggests, the most effective prayer is the one that cuts right to the heart of the matter. And Yancey reminds us of Jesus  words: “Your Father already knows what you need before you ask him.” So don’t cloud things up with needless dressing. Philip and Carol Zaleski quote the fourteenth-century classic The Cloud of Unknowing, which tells us that “short prayers penetrate heaven.” The ideal prayer, according to its anonymous author, is in fact the simple exclamation “God!”

Keep At It
“Prayer is practice for all life’s meaningful communication,” says Jewell. “The more you do it, the better you get at it.”

And the better you get, the better you’ll feel. “We are happiest,” write the Zaleskis, “when attention is absorbed in concentration or expanded beyond its habitual range. Not passively ‘relaxing,  but rather when we are fully engaged in a task that matters to us and challenges us.” That means that what we sometimes think is relaxing really isn’t. Watching TV, for instance, can induce a scattered, superficial state of mind in which we drift from one thought to another without coming to a halt anywhere. Prayer does the opposite, taking us away from that restlessness and bringing us into contact with our deeper, better, truer selves. We focus on the essential.

And even when things don’t seem to be working at all—that is, when we can’t hear God—we can rest assured that he hears us loud and clear. The Zaleskis begin their book with a line from the nineteenth-century clergyman John Chapman that says it all: “Pray as you can; not as you can’t.”

Does all this entail work? Trial and error? Occasional confusion and disappointment? Yes. But that’s nothing in comparison to the elemental connection that prayer offers. Maybe that’s why, in our electronically connected world, the need to pray refuses to diminish no matter how many other ways we devise of connecting with ourselves and the world. (Guideposts’s online prayer network receives more than 300,000 prayer requests a year.)

In a world full of connections that can sometimes fail, prayer is the one thing that we can always count on to be up and running.
This article originally appeared in Guideposts magazine. Visit the recently updated

Thursday, March 12, 2009

True sight and understanding

“All nature is but art, unknown to thee; all chance, direction which thou canst not see; all discord, harmony not understood.”
-- Alexander Pope

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


“When the True Self breaks through, a new and impassioned approach to life often makes itself known. We tap into an inner radiance that I call delight. I’m speaking of a unique kind of response to life that can coexist with our most painful realities. I’m speaking of the joy of saying yes to life in the core of our being.

“I believe that the capacity to delight in life is deeply carved by our waiting. ‘When I planted my pain in the field of patience,’ wrote Kahil Gibran, ‘it bore fruit of happiness.’

“Delight comes from our scars. One of my favorite stories is a variation of an old tale that circulated through New England in the 19th century. An insect egg was deposited into an apple tree on a farm in Connecticut. One day the tree was struck by lightening and fell to the ground. The farmer took the apple wood and made it into a table, which sat in the kitchen for many years. One day he heard a strange sound, like gnawing, coming from the wood. It kept up for weeks, until finally a beautiful winged bug emerged through a scar in the table, opened its wings, and flew about the kitchen in a little dance of joy, delighting (it seemed) in the long-awaited experience of being alive.

“Delight comes that way -- wounds, waiting, and finally wings. It gnaws out through the scar. . . .

“Delight can become a way of life, a way of journeying. There’s a saying, ‘Religion is not to be believed, but danced.’ (The Spiritual Life by John H. Westerhoff and John D. Eusden) I like this idea, for it shifts the emphasis from our endless pursuit of religious knowledge back to the dimension of living our religion in such a way that it becomes a dance, a celebration in which we open our arms and say yes to life.

“At times I’ve interrupted my spiritual journey by lingering in a corner of the dance floor watching other dancers or by studying the movements of the dance in a book. The point of the spiritual life is that you dance the music God pipes in you.”

from When the Heart Waits by Sue Monk Kidd

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Kaspar Hauser: A Foundling's Opera

Composer Elizabeth Swados’ latest piece, Kaspar Hauser: A Foundling's Opera, is a riveting production that tells the story of one person’s tragic life, surrounded by the larger forces of society which alternately neglect, celebrate and crush the individual. While the core tale is sad, the work is not depressing because of Swados’ skillful use of operatic elements and absurdism to both draw in and distance the audience. It is at the Flea Theater in Tribeca through March 28 and should not be missed.

Borrowing from the tale of the notorious feral “wild child” who appeared in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1828, Swados has been working on this piece for more than a decade. Preston Martin gives a powerful performance as Kaspar, who was stolen from his noble mother as an infant so that another child would one day be able to rule in his place. The work opens as Kaspar, having lived the first dozen years of his life in a dungeon never learning how to speak or be human, is set free. The arc of the piece covers Kaspar’s troubled, highly publicized ascent into civilization through his assassination in 1833, at the age of 19, and the mystery surrounding his heritage — rumored to have been switched at birth, he was perhaps the true heir to the throne of Baden.

Supporting Martin in this world premiere production are 19 members of The Bats: Adrienne Deekman, Jennifer Fouché, Beth Griffith, Nicolas Greco, Joseph Dale Harris, Arlo Hill, Michael Hopewell, Amy Jackson, Erica Livingston, Chad Lindsey, Vella Lovell, Kelly McCormack, Colin Mew, Jason Najjoum, Eliza Poehlman, Hannah Shankman, Marshall York and Carly Zien. They do an extraordinary job of capturing the world into which Kaspar is released. Swados’ staging has them swirling around Kaspar as a grotesque mob, curious scientists or members of society. This creates a feeling of movement that surrounds Kaspar for much of the show. He is the pawn and they are the forces that control his fate.

“The fickleness of society is something I have always been very interested in and a great deal of my career has been dedicated to documenting the abuse and nurturing of children who are unusually innocent and lost,” Swados writes in a program note.

She says Francois Truffaut’s “The Wild Child,” Werner Herzog’s “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” and Peter Handke’s play on the subject were informative, “but my vision is entirely musical and reaches much more into the absurd,” she writes. “I have spent much time trying to create an opera and libretto that reflects what it would be like to be a prisoner with no one in sight for 10 to 12 years, and then to come into a chaotic, sometimes loving, sometimes corrupt universe.”

The music is compelling, both in the large choral numbers, which with the movement of the actors flow fluidly one from the other, and the solos; Eliza Poehlman as Kaspar’s mother is especially moving as she sings about her lost child. Kaspar remains at the center, looking particularly innocent and vulnerable with the help of white face makeup, red lipstick and lots of black eyeliner to make his eyes look large and scared.

Erin Courtney contributed to the book and lyrics. The company also includes: Kris Kukul (musical director), Mimi Quillin (movement director), Jeremy Bloom (assistant director), Carrie Dell Furay (stage manager), Kara Kaufman (assistant stage manager), Jeanette Yew (lighting designer), Normandy Sherwood (costume designer), John McDermott (set designer), and Sam Goldman (sound designer).

Tickets for Kaspar Hauser are $25 and are available at Visit for more information on KASPAR and the Flea Theater.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Irish actress Anna Manahan dead at 84

I was sorry to read that Anna had died. She was a lovely person, and I’m happy to have known her.

I first met Anna when she read a scripture passage for us at Broadway Blessing in 1998, the year she won a Tony Award for her performance in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. As a friend and I helped her into a taxi at the end of the evening, she told us it had been the best experience of her stay in America. We reminded her about winning the Tony three months earlier and assumed she meant other than that, but she said being part of the Blessing was even better. Now as founder and producer of BB, I love it very much, but I wouldn’t put it higher than winning a Tony. Anna did. Her Catholicism was important to her and she said BB was a great combination of the two things most that mattered most to her -- her faith and the theatre.

When Anna was here again in 2006 to star in the one-woman play Sisters off-Broadway, I asked her to take part in that year’s Blessing, which was our 10th anniversary celebration. She graciously accepted and chose to read the gospel passage about Jesus forgiving a woman who had been caught in adultery. She said the world needed at that time to hear Jesus’ message of forgiveness. (It still does, Anna.)

A couple days after that I was fortunate to have a warm and fascinating visit with Anna in her dressing room before a performance of Sisters. In the intimacy of that tiny space, with just the two of us alone, I noticed how frail she looked. As I left the theatre later that night I suddenly felt so sad I started to cry. I thought, “I’ll never see Anna again.” And I didn’t.

God bless you, dear Anna. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us.

“The lives of those who are faithful to God are changed not ended.”
-- 1 Corinthians.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Guys and Dolls

From my seat in Row D, I was absolutely fascinated by how much Lauren Graham’s eyes sparkle. Unfortunately that’s about the only place you’ll find any sparkle in this lackluster revival of Guys and Dolls at the Nederlander Theatre.

For the most part the performers have lovely voices, but except for Kate Jennings Grant (in photo) as Sarah Brown none of the main characters seems to be even trying to inhabit their parts. It’s as if they’ve come in to record the cast album, not act in a Broadway musical. Director Des McAnuff fails to produce much chemistry, but at least Frank Loesser’s songs are rendered beautifully.

The weakest member of the cast is Oliver Platt as Nathan Detroit. I can think of no reason why he was chosen for this major role except that he has a following from his portray of Oliver Babish in “The West Wing.” He has neither a good singing voice nor magnetism, and it’s completely unbelievable that Graham’s Miss Adelaide would be at all attracted to him, much less be engaged to him for 14 years.

Graham also is miscast, again possibly getting the job because of her television following from her years as Lorelai on the popular “Gilmore Girls” series. So fresh and pretty, she looks more like a debutante than a show girl, even though she can shimmy with the best of them. She has a beautiful voice, but her acting is flat.

Craig Bierko as Sky Masterson also seems to be phoning it in, which is disappointing because he was so fabulous as Professor Harold Hill in the 2000 revival of The Music Man.

I did enjoy Tituss Burgess as Nicely Nicely Johnson, and it was good to hear his extraordinary voice again. He sang at Broadway Blessing two years ago and was a real powerhouse.

Guys and Dolls, which is based on characters created by Damon Runyon, won five 1951 Tony Awards, including the one for Best Musical. The book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows is alternately funny and corny.

In general, the evening is entertaining, just not up to Broadway standards performance-wise. This is too bad because set designer Robert Brill did a terrific job of creating 1930s New York street scenes, complete with a subway car that rolls by, Dustin O’Neill provided great video designs, Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is lively and costume designer Paul Tazewell’s flashy costumes are a delight. Lighting designer Howell Binkley and sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy also produce Broadway-quality work. Music director Ted Sperling and orchestrator Bruce Coughlin bring to life the classic score, which includes "Fugue for Tinhorns," "A Bushel and a Peck," "If I Were a Bell," "Adelaide's Lament," "I'll Know," "Guys and Dolls," "More I Cannot Wish You," "Luck Be A Lady" and "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat."

Tickets for Guys and Dolls may be purchased by calling (212) 307-4100, visiting or from the Nederlander Theatre box office, located at 208 W. 41st St.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Playwright Horton Foote Is Dead at 92

Broadway marquee lights will be dimmed for one minute tonight in honor of Horton Foote, a remarkable light on the Great White Way who died yesterday. I was fortunate to have interviewed him in 1992 for an article for The Washington Post and found him to be accessible and down-to-earth, seemingly without ego despite his decades of accomplishments.

Mr. Foote may be best known to non-theatregoers for his play The Trip to Bountiful, which was made into a feature film that won two Academy Awards in 1985 and for which he was nominated for best adaptation. He personally won Oscars for his screenplay for “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), based on the novel by his lifelong friend Harper Lee, and the original script for “Tender Mercies” (1983), which he wrote for his friend Robert Duvall (who incidentally made his film debut playing Boo Radley in “Mockingbird.”) His Pulitzer was for The Young Man From Atlanta, which also was nominated for a Tony Award.

His play Dividing the Estate had a Broadway run earlier this season and will be produced at Hartford Stage this spring. In 2009-10 Hartford Stage also will co-produce, along with Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company, the world premiere of Mr. Foote's The Orphans' Home Cycle, a collection of nine Texas-set plays.

In presenting Mr. Foote with the National Medal of Arts in 2000, President Bill Clinton stated, "Believe it or not, the great writer Horton Foote got his education at Wharton — but not at the Wharton Business School. He grew up in the small town of Wharton, Texas. His work is rooted in the tales, the troubles, the heartbreak, and the hopes of all he heard and saw there. As a young man, he left Wharton to become an actor and soon discovered the easiest way to get good roles was to write the plays yourself. And he hasn't stopped since."

Mr. Foote’s death followed a brief illness, but other than that he had worked right up until the end. He had even moved to Hartford temporarily to work on the Cycle plays. He would have been 93 on March 14.

God bless you, Mr. Foote.

Gates of Gold

This is a story about a dying man in a play without a moment of life. I recommend it to anyone with only a short time to live. The 95-minutes will feel like a lifetime.

Playwright Frank McGuinness, who won a 1997 Tony Award for Best Revival for his translation of A Doll's House, creates a fictionalized version of the men who founded Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 1928, Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir, who onstage become Conrad (Charles Shaw Robinson, right in photo) and Gabriel (Martin Rayner, left). Gabriel is dying, which will not make you the least bit sad. He’s such a bore you wish he would just hurry up and do it. 

The play, having its American premiere at 59E59 Theaters under the direction of Kent Paul, is loaded with undeveloped plot lines -- the nurse (Kathleen McNenny) seems to be the sanest person in he household, that is until she goes off the deep end, only to return to once again being the rock of the group. Conrad, who is Gabriel’s partner in life as well as the theatre, has had, and seems to be having again, an affair with Gabriel’s nephew, Ryan, (Seth Numrich), who either hates or loves his uncle. It’s hard to tell. Kassie (Diane Ciesla) is Gabriel’s sister and Ryan’s mother who seems to have no purpose in the play other than to babble annoyingly whenever she’s onstage.

Mercifully, Gates of Gold is only playing a limited engagement, though Sunday March 29. To purchase tickets, contact Ticket Central on 212-279-4200 or online at For more information, visit 

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Transforming power of theatre

I was proud to be the first guest blogger on the Christians in Theatre Arts (CITA) web site where I shared this special memory of teaching the plays of Tina Howe (in photo).

The Savannah Disputation

Religion is rarely so much fun as it is in this tennis match of a new comedy, which opened last night at Playwrights Horizons. But it’s not just all for sport. Playwright Evan Smith lets each side score some solid theological points in this competition between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  

Walter Bobbie directs a delightful ensemble cast in a story about two Catholic sisters (Dana Ivey and Marylouise Burke) whose lifelong assurance that they belong to “the one true faith” is shaken by Melissa, a fundamentalist Christian (Kellie Overbey) whose mission is to “save” Catholics by getting them to renounce their tradition.

“I’m trying to convert Catholics,” she says.

“Into what?” they want to know.

“Christians,” she says smugly.

Margaret (Burke), the sweet-natured sister, and Mary (Ivey, in photo), her divorced and often irritated sibling, share a house that soon becomes a sparring ground after Margaret politely welcomes in Melissa, a door-to-door “missionary to the Catholics,” over Mary’s strong objection.

“If you’re nice to them, they’ll just keep coming back,” Mary warns. “They’re like cats.”

But Margaret wants to listen. After Melissa explains one element of her tradition, Margaret excitedly pipes up, “We believe that too!” Melissa smiles condescendingly, “No you don’t,” she says.

Because Melissa is determined in her mission, Mary calls in the parish priest, Father Murphy (Reed Birney), for reinforcement. Melissa explains that she doesn’t really have anything against Catholics in general. “Take away their religion and they’re just people,” she says.

“Take away their religion and they’re not Catholics,” Father Murphy replies.

But the tone shifts as the debate gets down to the root of Christianity as both sides seek to pinpoint exactly what the one true faith really is. As they are challenged, they begin to realize they have been spouting beliefs handed down from others without fully questioning the orthodoxy behind them.

John Lee Beatty’s set is heavy on Catholic imagery, which I hope he means as a comic exaggeration. The sisters’ living and dining room feature a crucifix, a cross, statues of Mary and a rosary hanging by the door leading to the kitchen, to name some of the items. Otherwise the set is nice, conveying a cozy, bright middle class home. David C. Woolard’s costumes portray the sisters as middle class and Melissa as lower class, which is in keeping with how the characters are developed in the script. Kenneth Posner’s lighting design makes this world intimate and accessible.

While the play makes fun of stereotypical images of both Roman Catholics and evangelicals, it doesn’t mock either group. In fact, it just might spark some questioning and debate among staunch believers in either way. (Episcopalians like me will probably be glad we’re right in the middle -- catholic but not Roman.)
The Savannah Disputation’s limited engagement runs through Sunday, March 15 at Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater, 416 W. 42nd St., between Ninth and 10th Avenues  Tickets may be purchased online via, by phone at (212) 279-4200 (Noon to 8 p.m. daily), or in person at the box office. 
     Reflecting Playwrights Horizons’ ongoing commitment to making its productions more affordable to younger audiences, the theater company will offer HOTtix, $20 rush tickets, subject to availability, day of performance only, starting one hour before show time to patrons aged 30 and under. Proof of age required. One ticket per person, per purchase. STUDENT RUSH, $15 rush tickets, subject to availability, day of performance only, starting one hour before curtain to full-time graduate and undergraduate students. One ticket per person, per purchase. Valid student ID required.

Monday, March 2, 2009

You should be dancing . . .

This is so fun. I would have loved to have been there. We should do this in our subway stations!

This commercial was shot at the Liverpool Street subway station in London on Jan 15. Only the dancers knew what was happening; the general public didn't have a clue what was about to unfold. This Youtube site has had more than two million hits in less than a month's time.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


I love this quote from Thomas Merton. It’s a great illustration of why meditation is the deepest form of prayer.

“The highest praise we can offer Him is to sacrifice every attempt to praise Him in human language and resist the temptation to reduce Him to the level of our own concepts and understandings. So it is great praise of God to remain in His silence and darkness. My silence is therefore the sacrifice of all things and the offering of my soul to God. Hence, my silence is my salvation.”