Monday, February 14, 2005

ARTTIME! Let's stay on aesthetics awhile, shall we? This weekend I saw 12 Angry Men on Broadway. It's old-school hardcore, man: No updating, no special pleading, no higher concept than giving the old warhorse its due. The actors come into the dowdy old New Yawk jury room and start indicating a hot day by pulling their shirts, mopping their necks, and loosening their ties, and we're suddenly back in the days of cheap theatre seats and cheaper epiphanies.

The plot -- all-male jury deliberating in the murder trial of some kid of despised ethnicity goes from all-but-convicting to exoneration on the strength of logic and bleeding-heart liberalism -- makes They Shall Not Die look like Ionesco. Thanks to the generous funding of the Roundabout company we have 12 count 'em 12 major characters, all venerable stereotypes given just enough air by the terrific actors to make them worth enjoying if not thinking too much about.

The play stacks the deck shamelessly; the more eager to convict the juror is, the more repulsively misguided he is shown to be. It's agitprop for fair-mindedness, picturing reason surmounting prejudice through democratic process.

This is a ridiculously old-fashioned idea, and to his credit the director, Scott Ellis, doesn't downplay it -- in fact, he leans on it as if it were revealed truth. In the 1957 movie, Henry Fonda played the raisonneur-holdout Juror #8 -- the guy who keeps saying "I don't know" and thus gets everyone thinking more seriously about the case -- and while Boyd Gaines is good in that role, he's not galvanic in Fonda's way, so Juror #8 melts even more deeply into the ensemble, making the solution to the play's problem seem more like the natural outgrowth of American jurisprudence than the instigation of one righteous man. The actors mill around the stage as if each were as important as any other, and wind up clumping together only to face down Juror #10 at the climax of his racist tirade -- a moment underlined by an exceedingly long stage wait. This is high corn, but as well-done as it is well-intentioned, and I loved it. (Of course, I'm the kind of guy who weeps openly at showings of Young Mr. Lincoln.)

At the curtain call, James Rebhorn gave a little speech about the passing of Arthur Miller. There's not much to say about the great man's passing, but I will add that I was surprised to realize I had seen, rarely as I go to the theatre anymore, the last two major mountings of Miller plays on Broadway: one of Broken Glass, one of The Price. The latter is one of my favorite plays. The struggle in The Price is between two middle-aged brothers, one who forsook his troubled family to take what education and ambition could give him as a doctor, one who stayed behind out of a sense of duty and became a cop. Each gets his full due -- Miller even directs in his production notes that a "fine balance of sympathy" must be struck between them -- and each is revealed to have been vanquished, more or less, by his own decisions. Miller, along with O'Neill and Dreiser, helped create the modern idea of tragedy: He understood that though we Americans have been blessed with an extraordinary degree of control over our fates, we are yet its victims, and a man's fall may be more poignant when it is the product of his own will rather than the gods'.

Went also to see The Gates by Christo (and Jeanne-Claude -- mustn't forget her!). By themselves they are not much: steel wickets with short drapes, all bright orange, snaking through Central Park. Such majesty as they have come from their volume -- it is something to see so many of them running over the hillocks and outcroppings of the Park -- and from the public response. There were more promenading citizens than one might expect on a chilly Sunday in Central Park, and as they walked under the drapes they seemed more cheerful and attentive to their surroundings than they might have been otherwise. I don't know if this is worth the massive expense of effort and someone's money (not ours, thankfully), but it was better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. You may quote me.

Also saw a few episodes of "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" on Trio. I had not seen "Laugh-In" since I was a little boy, and was surprised that it still amused me. The psychedelic factor is minor: the guh-rooviest aspect of the show is the very short film montages used as bridges, which have as much claim to fatherhood of the music-video aesthetic as anything else than has been suggested. The makers of "Laugh-In" knew their own bloodlines well; I remember Dan and Dick making overt reference on the show to Ernie Kovacs' "bathtub blackouts," and the overall esprit d'corps (not to mention the frequent cracking-up by cast members) is not much different from that seen on shows starring Carol Burnett and Red Skelton. So how was it different? Schlatter and Friendly, the producers, saw that the contracting attention spans encouraged by Richard Lester, Jean-Luc Godard et alia were thoroughly consonant with the methods of Vaudeville and burlesque, and that topical references were a good way to keep their formulae fresh, fast, and fragrant. They were also blessed with a game and capable company, including the incredibly cute Goldie Hawn and a couple of hipster Vegas comics whose drug of choice seems to have been highballs (Rowan's face maintained a strong vermillion glow) and whose lounge banter was as much a part of the Sixties as acid, pudding-basin haircuts, and all the other insignia that have gone out of date but are by no means unpleasant to revisit. Styles come and go, but troupers having a good time are always good company.

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