Thursday, June 12, 2008


It always seemed to me a very practical thing the way Rossini and to some extent Donizetti and Bellini built little applause platforms into the end of their arias, musical nothings, the equivalent to "And that's what I did with my summer vacation" that might as well be clapped over, because they're going to be. The gong rang, the e-flat's over, here's something to drown out with your applause.

Broadway audiences like to applaud. I sometimes think it's their favorite part of a play. And I think (though I'm going to have trouble explaining it) there's a special kind of applause that happens a lot at Broadway shows, in the middle of a show. You hear it start sometimes and not catch. It comes after a particularly well-placed one-liner, and I'm not sure if it owes its existence to sitcoms or, primally, to the bel canto opera--in fact it reminds me of the spontaneous applause after a piquant high note as much as it does the "you go girl" ovation after, I dunno, Courtney Thorne-Smith puts down Jim Belushi for leaving the toilet seat up on whatever that nightmarish cesspool of mediocrity they're on is called.

This kind of applause is more and more common. Maybe I'm just telling stories to make a point, but I'd swear I even heard it in The Year of My Entire Goddamn Family Dying with Ms. Redgrave. No that's probably just a lie. But you can hear people itching to do it, the nascent "oh no she didn't" applause rippling almost to a start in the mezzanine like the flashing lights before a migraine. Not to be a horrid curmudgeon. It has its place.

The 39 Steps, at the small and comfortable Cort Theater, is built around an audience's need to applaud. In the first act there was a blackout or the mugging end of a funny exchange about every three minutes, cue mid-act applause. With this wind-up it sounds like I mean that as a bad thing. As a matter of fact, given such indulgent permission, it's not an odious or even irritating thing. Only a few lines are truly funny, if you ask me, but it's a good time, a trifle.

Ok. I'm trying to be a good sport. The fact is I didn't love it. There's a lot of swell physical comedy, and some virtuosic timing, and even a whimsical little joke in the program bios. The thing is I found the comedy, under the perfectly enjoyable performances, just a little stale. By the end I had the distinct sensation of having watched the best episode of "Whose Line is it Anyway?" ever. Yeah, the American version. Like...not to spoil anything, the attempt to slip in the names of as many Hitchcock films as possible, and the audience roared at each, and said to each other "Vertigo! Did you hear?!" I think it may actually be a meme we can blame on stuff like Dreamworks animation, wherein references to things outside the frame are automatically funny.

And seriously, the reactions of the audience were those of pure pleasure, and what kind of sniffly Puritan would I be to piss on that, so, let's just say The 39 Steps is a real crowd pleaser, only I'm not much of a crowd.


The revival of Les Liaisons Dangermouse gracing I forget what theater* is something I'm actually a little more comfortable dismissing though for my own reasons, namely that I would donate a kidney to Sian Phillips if she needed or in fact merely fancied one, I was happy to see it. Laura Linney, it goes without saying, is among our finest, able and often required to redeem the worst kind of crap. (See also: her scenes in Love, Actually if you need proof, or watch the moribund bustle opera of House of Mirth, wherein her entrances are the only signs of life.) In good company, she's a revelation, as in You Can Count on Me, perfectly capable of wallops of joy and pathos in brief utterances. But not here, for some reason. The fact is, the Marquise de Merteuil is not a deeply interesting character, illuminated only by a faint glimmer of grand-guignol camp such as Annette Benning provided in the better filmic adaptation, Valmont. It seems to me Linney was searching for some kind of pathos, perhaps inspired by Glenn Close's risibly serious turn in the lesser filming of the book/play/movie/opera we are so well familiar with now.** There was little there to find. It's how teenagers think adults might behave badly, and it's still around and adapted so much, I think, because it's nostalgic to revisit that. My companions noted the awkward physicality of the direction. And for god's sake, if you're going to have cast in minor parts sing Handel arias, ask them to do it rather more idiomatically and without all the pomo ambient reverb, or at least get an Italian diction coach. Ombra my foo, indeed. Ombra your own.

Yeah, I have this and that I'd been meaning to post about including a link to some music I'm thinking you'll like a lot. Maybe that'll happen next week.

*I thought of it, and maybe was blocking it out because I wish theaters still had classy names, all of them, instead of being named after corporations. I hope people in Chicago are still calling Comiskey Park Comiskey Park because no matter my indifference about baseball, there can never be any poetry in something called Cellular One Field.

**I'm speaking of English language films, btw. I haven't seen the French. Actually it appears there's a miniseries of some sort with Catherine Deneuve, too.


La Cowntessa said...

I must admit that I sort of never feel satisfied by straight plays. Even when they're really good, I spend my entire time there wondering when someone is going to burst into song.

This may be why I'm a soprano and not, say, a thespian. (Not, I guess, that the two can't be complimentary.)

Which brings me to my actual point, which is, have you seen the opera version of Les liaison dangereuses?

Maury D'annato said...

AnonSopran: my dark secret (such as it is) is that my best nights at the theater bring me more satisfaction than my average nights at the opera. I remember one trip to NYC before I lived here, I saw Mary Louise Parker in Proof and some rather anonymously (no offense) cast stuff at the Met, and there wasn't really any question which one had grabbed me more.

I haven't seen the operatic version of LLD. I feel like nobody talks about it with any real fondness so I haven't gone out of my way looking for a copy. Is it any good?

La Cowntessa said...

I know some singers who've performed in it, and said it was a very interesting show, that deserved to be seen. I've never seen it personally, though I would like to.

What I'm really, really, really looking forward to is Ghosts of Versailles. Now THAT was an entertaining show. :)

Alex said...

Maury: I regret to inform you that most Chicagoans have totally succumbed to the corporate renaming of Comiskey Park; most pitiful, they have made up this 'endearing' nickname for it: "The Cell".

I suppose this is not such a concern if you like baseball for the actual baseball involved (and not just the nostalgia value) but it is still pretty disturbing.

Kathy said...

Not only does it lose something in the translation to change the name of a theater or ball park to name it after a corporation, but as the money changes hands, so does the name of the edifice - so unless you follow the financial stuff you're hard pressed to even know the name of the place you're headed for!

stewball said...

I heartily concur about the stream of Hitchcock movie references, and I think I may have said so way back when. In-jokes that are set up so that the whole audience gets them really have become something else and ought to go by a different name, but I can't think of what that word would be. Damn, it should be obvious.

Anonymous said...

This just goes to show how not a part of baseball culture I am. I had no idea about the just charming nickname alex discloses. And no, I don't call the park by its corporate name, though really, Wrigley isn't a place so much as it is a gum.

Maury D'annato said...

Alex: really, The Cell? Wasn't there a horror movie called that? Well at least it has the virtue of anonymizing the corporate value out of the name. You're not advertising anything in particular if you say "hey let's all go to The Cell and watch the Sox lose." [Did I get my local sports humor right? They always lose, right right?]

Maury D'annato said...

Stewball: I forgot you had lamented this. Very like me to accidentally borrow someone else's lament, I'm afraid. I am working on what it's called when the wink and the nudge are prepackaged that way.

La Cieca said...

La Cieca's favorite version

Unknown said...

I dunno, my own mother (and her best friend) attended what must have been the best Liaisons Dangereuseseses ever at I think a dinner theatre in Southern CA. One of those things where, in lieu of acting, the cast relied upon various painful affectations— e.g., Valmont had a habit of smacking his lips loudly at particularly villainous moments, which after Mom pointed it out to her friend Gayle sent both of them into giggles every time— and most of the audience was gone by the time the lights came up.

My mother was glad they stayed, though, because otherwise they would've missed the best line of the evening, delivered as the Marquise threw herself hysterically around the stage bewailing Valmont's death.

Man in audience [loudly]: "Ehhhh, she'll get over it."

Chip Michael said...

I love your comments about the audience wanting to applaud. I was at a concert of Mendelssohns Octet, Op 20 and really wanted to applaud at the end of the second movement, to say "Well done!!!!" - but applaus in between movements is frowned upon.

Why is it, we can applaud in the middle of an opera, but not in the middle of a Symphony?

Why can't we, as an audience, show our appreciation in each "break"? We do it for jazz or rock musicians? Are classical musicians not worthy of our praise until it's all over?

Paul said...

My wife, a Chicago native and [being a Northsider] lifelong Cubs fan, disparagingly refers to the new Comiskey as "The Phone Booth," a further play on its corporate ownership. Of course, also she delights in continuing to call Houston's stadium "Enron Field," despite that company's obvious dis-connection.