Saturday, December 31, 2011

Once In Love With Amy

The broadly-played, dumbed-down and horseyed-up "Charley's Aunt" at The Guthrie Theater.


This afternoon my middle brother and Joshua and I went downtown to attend a matinee performance of “Charley’s Aunt” at The Guthrie Theater. The classic comedy by Brandon Thomas was The Guthrie’s popular holiday offering this year; the production has played since late November, and will continue until mid-January.

The production was dreadful. The actors were a troupe of hams, grossly overplaying their parts. Of style and wit—and Englishness—there were none. The production was one of the most depressing things I have ever seen on the Guthrie stage. Summer stock in the Pocono’s surely is better than what we observed this afternoon. The director and cast members should be mortified over the vaudeville shtick they delivered to a paying audience.

There is something wrong with The Guthrie, and I have concluded that a change in management is necessary.

Guthrie productions are always beautifully designed. Stage design, costume design, lighting design: all are invariably exquisite. Current Guthrie management seems to have adopted a policy of “show them the money”: the company’s physical productions are lavish if not ostentatious.

However, the company increasingly seems to believe that a theatrical production begins and ends with the design team. If the public is presented with a conspicuously-costly production, The Guthrie views its mission as largely accomplished. Poor casting and poor direction, in the company’s eyes, are minor considerations if the physical production is sufficiently complex and sufficiently expensive-looking.

In this afternoon’s “Charley’s Aunt”, not a single actor onstage should have been cast in the play. No one onstage had a clue how to bring off a 19th-Century British comedy of manners. No one delivered dialogue skillfully, no one knew how to shape 19th-Century British prose, no one understood the class distinctions at work—and no one knew how to move onstage in a manner appropriate for his or her role.

The director was equally clueless. He had directed the production as if it were a television situation comedy, which led me to believe that he did not even understand the material. What is the point of presenting “Charley’s Aunt” if the production is directed like “The Odd Couple”?

It was a dispiriting afternoon.

My parents and my older brother and my sister-in-law had attended a performance of “Charley’s Aunt” earlier in the week. (My middle brother had stayed home to watch my nephew and niece that evening.) They had disliked the production, too, but they had been circumspect in articulating their thoughts about the production, not wanting to ruin the performance for us even before we had a chance to experience it and form our own opinions. In hindsight, I wish they had been forthcoming, and recommended that we stay home.

Like me, my parents are of the view that The Guthrie needs new leadership—with the proviso, in my father’s words, “Be careful what you wish for” (by which my father means that The Guthrie might end up with worse leadership than it has now).

Myself, I have witnessed my quotient of elaborate Guthrie physical productions in which the actors, ambling through massively-impressive stage settings, are insufficiently talented and insufficiently guided to warrant continued employment of either cast or director. A top-notch British director needs to be called in to get The Guthrie house in order, even if that would rile up a portion of the current Guthrie constituency (and would inevitably result in the wholesale dismissal of the current directorial house staff, none of whom would be missed).

Tonight’s New Year’s Eve Dinner was built around Norwegian fish balls. It was the second time this winter my mother has prepared Norwegian fish balls, which are not particularly easy to make, and we were all pleased to eat them a second time.

Our dinner began with lobster bisque, and continued with a minced-salmon/pasta salad, served cold. With the Norwegian fish balls we ate riced potatoes with cream and chives and a vegetable casserole made with fresh vegetables, cream, cheeses and bacon.

The dog was given beef tips and a serving of potatoes for his dinner. As a general rule, he does not like seafood, and we wanted to give him a dinner he would enjoy, especially since tonight was New Year’s Eve.

For dessert, we had Breudher (a Dutch New Year Cake made with cream, butter and raisins) for the second night in a row. My mother had baked eight Breudher cakes yesterday, three for the family and five as gifts—already delivered—for friends from church.

Tomorrow we shall have Norwegian fish chowder, another dish that is not particularly easy to make, for a special New Year Lunch. My mother made the chowder this afternoon while my brother and Josh and I were downtown suffering through “Charley’s Aunt”.

Happy 2012

Friday, December 30, 2011

As 2011 Comes To A Close . . .

Two of the finest websites on the worldwide web are no longer in existence, and with great sadness I have had to remove them from my blogroll. Both websites were sui generis, and irreplaceable.

“The Art Of The Great War” was a scholarly website devoted to painting and sculpture created during and in response to World War I in Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia. The demise of the website is a great loss to history scholars and art scholars. The website’s originators were, I believe, cultural affairs officers from various countries, all working at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Texts were written by art professors from ten nations. The website, extravagantly and beautifully designed, was an offshoot of a major art exhibition, ten years in the making, that toured prominent European art museums approximately one decade ago.

“Samuel Beckett In Hamburg 1936” was a scholarly website devoted to examining exhaustively Beckett’s travels to North Germany in 1936. Each day of Beckett’s travels was documented with photographs, letters, diary entries, newspaper and magazine articles, and annotated text. The author of the website was a Professor Of Literature at a university in Hamburg—and the website, once again, was imaginatively and beautifully designed. I hope the author is in the process of turning the contents of the website into a book, because the website was both a work of scholarship and a work of art.

Thought For The New Year: “Epicurean Chaos”

The decline of a particular civilization is a culmination of the strife between religion and secular intellectualism, a strife that inevitably topples the precarious institutions of convention and morality—and, ultimately, the society itself.

Hence a certain tension between religion and society marks the higher stages of every civilization. Religion begins by offering magical aid to harassed and bewildered men; it culminates by giving to a people that unity of morals and belief that seems so favorable to statesmanship and art; it ends by fighting suicidally in the lost cause of the past. For as knowledge grows or alters continually, it clashes with mythology and theology, which change with geological leisureliness. Priestly control of arts and letters is then felt as a galling shackle or hateful barrier, and intellectual history takes on the character of a "conflict between science and religion." Institutions that were at first in the hands of the clergy, like law and punishment, education and morals, marriage and divorce, tend to escape from ecclesiastical control, and become secular, perhaps profane. The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and—after some hesitation—the moral code allied with it; literature and philosophy become anticlerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason, and falls to a paralyzing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. Conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death. Meanwhile among the oppressed another myth arises, gives new form to human hope, new courage to human effort, and after centuries of chaos builds another civilization.

Will Durant

Dutch Treat

A treat for the New Year, a couple of days early: Breudher, a traditional cake for the New Year from the Netherlands.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Civilization Is Not Inherited

Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die, and we should be savages again.

Will and Ariel Durant

Dvořák’s Funeral Procession

Prague, 5 May 1904: Antonín Dvořák’s Funeral Procession

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Adoration Of The Magi

Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734)
The Adoration Of The Magi
The Royal Collection, London

Oil On Canvas
130 5/16 Inches By 116 5/8 Inches

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Carl Maria Von Weber

Our Final Outing Before Christmas

This past weekend was totally devoted to Christmas-related activities and preparations, with one exception: on Sunday afternoon, Joshua and I took my mother downtown to view a small art exhibition and to attend a concert.

At the Minneapolis Institute Of Arts, we attended “Bonjour Japon: A Parisian Love Affair With Japanese Art”, an exhibition devoted to the influence of Japanese art on the art of France during the late 19th Century. Most of the important Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists were represented—the exhibition involved a case of rounding up the usual suspects—and most of the works on display were very minor. “Bonjour Japon” is the kind of exhibition that dedicated museum visitors have experienced a hundred times: yet another recycling of popular Impressionist/Post-Impressionist works under the pretext of a fresh perspective.

The current major exhibition at MIA is devoted to Japanese prints, and “Bonjour Japon” is one of two small pendent exhibitions to the main affair. We have not attended the major exhibition, and probably shall not.

In all, there were seventeen temporary exhibitions on display at MIA during our visit (with another two MIA exhibitions on view at other sites). The MIA has a tendency to saturate art lovers with small-scale exhibitions, and I am not confident that this is a wise practice.

From the museum we drove to Ted Mann Concert Hall to hear the Sunday matinee concert by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

The SPCO has had to vacate its regular home, The Ordway Center in Saint Paul, for most of the month of December due to popular Christmas programming at The Ordway (including a two-week run of the uninspired Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “Cinderella”).

Mann, which opened in 1993, is a beautiful concert hall—it probably is my favorite concert hall in the Twin Cities—and I much prefer it to Ordway. However, Mann’s capacity is just over 1100 persons, while Ordway’s capacity is 1900 persons. The SPCO loses revenue every time it must book Mann. This surely must grate on SPCO officials, since a primary reason for building Ordway was to create a permanent home for the SPCO. Alas, since The Ordway opened in 1985, the SPCO has had to contend with an Ordway administration that tries to keep the hall booked with touring and self-produced musicals and dance events year-round, a practice that often deprives the SPCO of its home concert hall.

A resolution is in the works: groundbreaking for a second hall at The Ordway is scheduled for the very near future. The new hall is supposed to be in place by 2014, and will be devoted exclusively to concerts. The price tag for the new hall is $75 million, and most of the money has already been raised.

At the very same time that a second hall at The Ordway will be rising from the ground, the Minnesota Orchestra’s home, Orchestra Hall (which opened in 1974), will undergo an extensive two-year renovation costing $90 million. As is the case with the proposed new venue at The Ordway, most of the money for the renovation of Orchestra Hall has already been raised. Orchestra Hall is scheduled to close at the conclusion of the current subscription season and to reopen in 2014. (For the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 seasons, the Minnesota Orchestra will occupy a specially-created temporary concert hall at the new Convention Center).

The SPCO has an annual budget of $10 million. The organization announced last week that it would balance its budget during the current fiscal year.

The Minnesota Orchestra, however, announced last week that it would incur a deficit of $2.9 million during the current fiscal year (the Minnesota Orchestra has an annual budget of $30 million). Oddly, the orchestra announced an increase in ticket revenue over the preceding fiscal year, and blamed the deficit on a smaller-than-expected draw from its endowment (the Minnesota Orchestra has one of the six largest endowments among American orchestras). The numbers add up only if one takes into account the rolling-average method for determining the permitted draw from an endowment—and, I submit, it is irresponsible for a non-profit organization to use rolling-average accounting during periods of adverse market conditions. Doing so merely renders permanent the loss of value in the corpus of the trust—with the inevitable result that allotted annual draws two and three years into economic downturns are significantly reduced, precisely the situation the Minnesota Orchestra faces at present.

Sunday’s SPCO concert was pleasing. I am glad we attended.

Christian Zacharias was back on the podium (Josh and I had heard Zacharias lead the orchestra two weeks ago). On Sunday, Zacharias conducted two Haydn symphonies, supplemented with Stravinksy’s Danses Concertantes and Weber’s Konzertstück. It was a delightful program.

Zacharias is not a profound conductor of Haydn, but he is a satisfactory one. Zacharias’s Haydn is plain, not stylish, and Zacharias displayed more earnestness than imagination in shaping Haydn’s themes—yet Zacharias kept things moving and he never distorted tempi or musical line.

Symphony No. 42, from 1771, was played first. Scored for two oboes, two bassoons, two horns and strings, Symphony No. 42 bears many of the hallmarks of Haydn’s late style, including a false recapitulation in the first movement and a fully-developed Rondo in the fourth movement complete with unexpected starts and stops.

Symphony No.100 (“Military”), composed for Haydn’s second trip to London in 1794, was played last. On a much grander scale than its 1771 predecessor (although shorter in length), the “Military” adds two flutes, two clarinets, two trumpets and timpani, triangle, cymbals and bass drum to the Haydn orchestra heard in Symphony No. 42. The “Military” is one of Haydn’s greatest—and most popular—symphonies and has occupied a central place in the repertory since the day of its premiere.

We enjoyed the Haydn performances, although we remained fully aware that we were hearing nothing exceptional. The performances displayed little warmth and little wit. Nothing miraculous occurred. The slow movements tended to trudge. We do not live in an age of Haydn conductors.

Stravinsky’s Danses Concertantes was written in 1940—it was the first Stravinsky composition written, start to finish, after Stravinsky had emigrated to the United States—and came immediately after the composer’s Symphony In C. To my ears, Danses Concertantes is a weak piece; it has always struck me as a recycled version of the much finer Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, which premiered in 1938. Perhaps because of the international situation, the year 1940 was not a good one for Stravinsky; his writing that year was impersonal, dutiful and professional, as if achieved on automatic pilot (the Symphony In C is also a rote work).

The SPCO performance of Danses Concertantes was accomplished—but there is little that can be done with the piece aside from playing the notes.

Weber’s Konzertstück—in which Zacharias served as both conductor and pianist—was the highlight of the concert.

The Konzertstück was Weber’s final significant work for orchestra. Premiered in 1821 (one week after the premiere of “Der Freischütz”), the Konzertstück came long after the composer’s early symphonies and clarinet and piano concertos. I believe it is Weber’s finest piece of absolute music (although the composer apparently had a programmatic scheme in mind while writing the Konzertstück). The Konzertstück possesses a depth and an originality otherwise absent in Weber works for the concert hall (the composer’s works for the theater are another matter entirely).

A veritable piano concerto in one movement (in four distinct sections), the Konzertstück is the most concentrated and most overtly dramatic of Weber’s orchestral works. Perhaps of greater importance, the work coheres—which cannot genuinely be said of the composer’s symphonies and concertos. It is as finely wrought and as deeply expressive as anything Beethoven or Schubert wrote in 1821.

The Konzertstück was a mainstay of the orchestral repertory in Europe and America until the middle of the 20th Century, at which point the work began to fall from view. Its neglect in recent decades has not been deserved.

I thought Sunday’s performance was excellent, both from orchestra and pianist. In fact, I wished the musicians had ditched the Stravinsky and played the Weber twice.

We had a lovely afternoon in what was our final outing before Christmas. My mother enjoyed the exhibition and the concert, and Josh enjoyed the exhibition and the concert (and it was Josh’s first visit to Mann, which he very much appreciated).

On Thursday, Josh and I will fly to Oklahoma to spend Christmas with Josh’s family. We shall return on the 29th.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Christmas Poinsettia Snowflake Cookies

The fruits are they of holy Christmas tide,
But baked indeed, for children's use designed.

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Very Special Player

He was, indeed, a very special player.

I am sorry I was too young to see him in his prime—and I am not even a baseball fan.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Chekhov In Repertory

Yesterday we did something fun: my mother, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I went to the Rarig Center on the main campus of the University Of Minnesota to see two Chekhov plays, “Uncle Vanya” and “The Cherry Orchard”. The plays, presented by the University Of Minnesota Department of Theatre Arts And Dance, had been running in repertory for the previous ten days, and yesterday’s performances marked the final day of the repertory run. We caught “Uncle Vanya” at the 2:00 p.m. matinee and we caught “The Cherry Orchard” at the 7:30 p.m. evening performance.

The student actors were taken from the BFA Actor Training Program jointly sponsored by the University Of Minnesota and The Guthrie Theater. The casts were directed by two out-of-town professional stage directors known for expertise in Chekhov.

We enjoyed the performances. They were high-quality student performances, nothing more, but the plays came across fully. Texts had been discreetly pruned, and the stage designs were not particularly good and not particularly imaginative, but the productions were definitely worth experiencing. The “Uncle Vanya” production was better than the production of “The Cherry Orchard”.

It had been a long time since any of us had attended a production of “Uncle Vanya”. In fact, I cannot remember the last time I saw “Uncle Vanya” on stage.

My mother and Josh and I had most recently attended a performance of “The Cherry Orchard” in London in August—and, further, Josh and I had seen “The Cherry Orchard” in Baltimore in March 2009. Yesterday having been our third “Cherry Orchard” in less than three years, Josh and I intend now to give the play a rest.

Between performances, we ate dinner at a Greek/French restaurant within walking distance—a long walk—of the Rarig Center.

Like the restaurant itself, we mixed Greek food and French food. Since we had plenty of time on our hands, we ordered four courses: Phyllo triangles with three different Greek fillings; Greek salad; Bouillabaisse; and Baklava. Our dinner was slightly disappointing, especially the Bouillabaisse, but we did not go hungry.

Everyone else in my family camped out at my parents’ house yesterday.

They did not go hungry, either.

Prior to the Chekhov performances, we all sat down to a lunch of homemade tomato-cream soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.

For dinner, my mother left behind chickens ready for roasting, vegetables ready for steaming and new potatoes ready for boiling, along with a fresh cranberry salad and a Boston Cream Pie. It was a snap for my father and my brothers to do what little additional preparation remained.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

From The Dutch Golden Age

Pieter Janssens Elinga (1623-1682)
The Reading Woman
Date Unknown (Probably Circa 1657)
Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Oil On Canvas
30 3/16 Inches By 25 3/8 Inches

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Potsdam 1945

A group portrait of the principal players at the Potsdam Conference, held at the Cecilienhof Palace in July 1945.

Truman looks ridiculous. His attitude and demeanor are those of a puffed-up penguin, a hick newly-released from the boondocks, with no idea that he reveals himself to be both boob and buffoon.

British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, not the sharpest tool in the shed, does not come off much better.

Standing are American Admiral William Leahy, British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, U.S. Secretary Of State James Byrnes, and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov.

Leahy was the least prepossessing of American admirals of the World War II era. Bevin, not the brightest bulb in the closet, and Byrnes, a lightweight whose tenure—happily—was very brief, were singularly under-whelming administrators of foreign policy and international affairs.

It is frightening to think that this group of men was responsible for the post-war direction of Europe.

Stalin and Molotov, a couple of dismaying criminals, appear to be the only competent persons in the photograph.

That, too, is frightening.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Towers Of Angst

Last evening, Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to hear the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in music of Beethoven and Frank Martin.

Pianist Christian Zacharias was both guest conductor and guest soloist.

Josh and I last heard Zacharias in November of last year, when he had appeared with the Boston Symphony as conductor and pianist.

That 2010 occasion had not been a happy one. Zacharias, making his Boston Symphony debut as a conductor (Zacharias had debuted as a pianist with the Boston Symphony in 1979; that 1979 Boston appearance had marked his American debut), had been assigned two late Haydn symphonies and two Mozart piano concertos, far too heavy a remit for a conductor working with an orchestra for the first time. In hindsight, I am surprised that those Boston performances did not fall apart (which they came close to doing).

Zacharias was on much friendlier turf last evening, because he has worked successfully with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in the past. Last night, it was clear from the start of the program that Zacharias and the musicians worked well together.

Martin’s Etudes For String Orchestra began the concert (and was the attraction that got us into the concert hall). Composed in 1955 and 1956, the composition is just one of many masterpieces that flowed from Martin’s pen, starting when the composer was in his early fifties and ending with his death at the age of 84.

It took Martin a long time to acquire his individual voice, longer perhaps than any other major composer. Martin was fifty-one or fifty-two years old when his individual voice finally emerged during the early years of World War II. That he lived and worked in neutral Switzerland enabled Martin to write without letup during the war years. Once he found his voice, Martin’s output significantly accelerated; almost all Martin works performed today come from the last thirty years of the composer’s life.

The Etudes For String Orchestra are marvels of invention. It would be accurate to classify the composition as Neo-Classic in the Stravinksy mode, but such is a very limiting—and almost misleading—classification. Martin was one of the century’s great masters of counterpoint (he studied the music of Bach his entire life), and he was one of the century’s great masters of serial writing. Both disciplines are on ample display in the Etudes.

Martin was a mathematician and physicist by training as well as a devout Calvinist. His music is both innately logical and deeply spiritual, qualities entirely in keeping with his scientific background and deep religious faith.

The SPCO performance of the Etudes was technically brilliant, but it shortchanged much of the expression written into the score. I suspect the SPCO does not play enough Martin to come to grips with the full range of content in Martin’s music. The Etudes sounded impersonal in the Saint Paul performance, as if the musicians had accepted the work’s title at face value.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 followed the Martin.

The orchestra’s playing in the Beethoven was, once again, impersonal—but this may have been the fault of the conductor, who could hardly play the piano part while looking out for the orchestra at the same time.

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 may be performed with a single conductor/pianist because it is very much an on-the-surface piece. Beethoven’s last three piano concertos, however, require both a conductor and a pianist—and a conductor and pianist with distinct personalities, personalities strong enough to realize fully the tension and battle of wills Beethoven consciously wrote into the concerto form in his mature efforts. To call upon a single musician to perform both roles will, inevitably, limit the scope of the performance—and, on occasion, even trivialize it.

The orchestra was a non-factor in last night’s performance. The notes were played, beautifully, but nothing happened. The orchestra provided a supporting, not a contrasting, presence.

It was, nonetheless, an interesting performance, but only because Zacharias the keyboard artist had very definite ideas about how to shape the piano part.

Zacharias dispensed with the niceties of Classicism. His tempi were all over the place, and his very pronounced and very personal use of rubato would not have been unwelcome in the music of Chopin. Zacharias played the piano part as if it represented Early Romanticism, where deep expression and heightened drama count for more than classic equipoise. Significantly, I thought that Zacharias was trying to find outright tragedy in a piece where there is none.

Zacharias certainly held my attention—but any musician that offers a highly unusual reading of a standard work will, by definition, hold the listener’s attention. Such cannot be the sole—or even the primary—standard by which a musician’s work is to be judged.

Simply put, Zacharias’s too-Romantic style of play shoved Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 thirty or forty years into the future. The result was that the work’s formal perfection disappeared, its chaste qualities swelling to towers of angst. Zacharias’s interpretation would have been better suited to the Schumann Piano Concerto.

After intermission, the orchestra played excerpts from Beethoven’s “The Creatures Of Prometheus”, one of the composer’s least interesting compositions. Played complete (overture and sixteen numbers), the score takes approximately 70 minutes to perform. Happily, the selections offered last night required only half that time—yet the work nonetheless seemed to go on forever.

It is easy to understand why “The Creatures Of Prometheus” is seldom encountered in concert halls. The music is not inspired; the composer seems stuck in his early contredanse mode of writing.

What is not easy to understand is why the SPCO placed “The Creatures Of Prometheus” last on the program. It was the weakest music of the night. It should have served as the concert’s opening work.

Zacharias will return to the SPCO in two weeks time, conducting music of Haydn, Weber and Stravinsky. Josh and I may try to attend one of those concerts.

In the meantime, Zacharias will make his long-overdue Carnegie Hall recital debut on December 13, a debut that should have occurred thirty years ago. When I read, a day or two ago, that Zacharias had never previously been invited to perform a solo recital in Carnegie’s main auditorium, I was dumbfounded. Zacharias has been an important pianist for more than three decades. He should have logged a dozen Carnegie recitals by now.

Herbert Von Karajan Directs Anna Tomowa-Sintow

Herbert Von Karajan directs the Elsa of soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow in "Lohengrin" at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 1976.

Saturday, December 03, 2011


Theater In The Round is not having a good season.

Last evening, my middle brother and Joshua and I stayed downtown after work and attended a performance of Theater In The Round’s current production of A. R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room”. It may have been the weakest presentation I have ever encountered at Theater In The Round.

“The Dining Room” is more series of vignettes than fully-formed play. The script presents several different families from several different time periods (the early 20th Century through the late 1970s) in several different scenarios experiencing several different family problems, all set in the same dining room. The author’s theme has often been interpreted as depicting the decline of WASP America and the corresponding deterioration of the American upper-middle-class, but I am not so certain that such was the author’s intent.

“The Dining Room” was written in 1980, just as The Reagan Revolution was gathering steam, and premiered on January 31, 1981, ten days after President Reagan’s inauguration. Under such circumstances, for theorists to attribute to “The Dining Room” an examination of the decline of WASP America and the deterioration of the upper-middle-class is a case of grievous mistiming of circumstance at best or boneheaded misreading of history at worst.

In all likelihood, Gurney, in “The Dining Room”, was writing about his own family, as has always been Gurney's practice in his plays (as the playwright has admitted on multiple occasions). Gurney no doubt took as his starting point various family dramas he personally witnessed or heard about, and used his imagination to proceed from there.

Many of the vignettes are funny, but more than a few leave a sour aftertaste. I suspect that Gurney, in his private life, was caught between loving his family members and loathing them.

The play calls for six actors to play fifty-some roles ranging in age from small children to elders in their dotage. The vignettes are played without pause, and on occasion overlap. What with all the role-switching, “The Dining Room” is not an easy play for actors—and this is especially so since the scenes are too short for any of the characters to emerge as anything other than archetypes. Actors, I believe, must find the play as much frustrating and pointless as challenging to their craft.

The play is frustrating for audiences, too, because there is no depth underlying its rapid-moving surface. The charm of the play quickly pales as the vignettes go on and on (and I believe that at least one of the vignettes was cut from the Theater In The Round production). Sitting through two-and-a-quarter hours of thin vignettes is akin to dining on course after course of puff pastry.

For “The Dining Room” to succeed, the play must be expertly cast and expertly directed. The play must also move with great swiftness, because audiences cannot be allowed an opportunity to analyze the play as it unfolds or else the play fails miserably.

The cast in the Theater In The Round production was not good. None of the actors was up to the many demands called for by the playwright.

The director of the Theater In The Round production did not know how to shape the material or bring it to life. There was silent thud after silent thud as each vignette ended. Some scenes were ponderous, others were too cute by half, most simply fell flat.

In short, everyone associated with this production seemed to be wrong for the project. I had seen productions of “The Dining Room” before last night, but until last night I had never seen a production in which literally nothing worked.

This was the third consecutive Theater In The Round production we found acutely disappointing. Earlier this season, we sat through Theater In The Round’s “Bus Stop” and “The Reluctant Debutante”, productions that were not necessarily embarrassing but productions that had little to recommend them. “The Dining Room” production, in contrast, was very much an embarrassment. Something has gone wrong with the company—Theater In The Round is the oldest repertory theater company in the Twin Cities, preceding The Guthrie by well over a decade, and has a long and distinguished history and tradition—and something must be done to right the ship.

Before the performance, we ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant downtown.

We started with fresh corn chowder with roasted Poblano peppers and queso fresco, and continued with tomato salad with watermelon, queso fresco and red chili vinaigrette.

We ordered (and shared) three different plates of seafood: crab empanadas with salsa verde and avocado; red snapper ceviche with avocado, radish and orange; and sugarcane-skewered tequila shrimp with lemon-ginger mojo.

We finished with grilled chicken quesadilla with roasted corn and Poblano peppers.

Our food was pleasing, but we shall never return to the restaurant. The servers were aggressive liquor-pushers, and would not take “no” for an answer.

After we declined to order cocktails upon sitting down, our waiter informed us that he would bring us tequila cocktails anyway, but that he would remove them from our bill if we found them displeasing.

“If we want cocktails, we will be sure to let you know” was my brother’s response.

The waiter nevertheless promptly brought us cocktails. As the waiter placed them on our table, my brother told him, very quietly, “You can remove these, or I can remove them. If I remove them, you will need to call a busboy to clean up the mess on the floor.”

The waiter lowered his eyes, and said, in a very smarmy tone, “Teetotalers, are we?”

My brother looked him right in the eye, and responded, “Minimum-wage employee, are we?”

My brother’s response froze the waiter in his tracks, which had been my brother’s intent. After more than thirty seconds of total silence, my brother motioned at the cocktails and, without again looking at the waiter, said, “Remove these. And send a different server to our table.”

The waiter complied—and, five minutes later, we were greeted by a different waiter.

The second waiter started out just as smarmy as the first. In a high-pitched, singsong voice, drawing out his syllables to interminable lengths, he said, “OK. I understand NO COCKTAILS here. No cocktails AT ALL. OK. We can work with that.”

My brother looked the new waiter in the eye, and asked, very pointedly, “Do you always talk like this?”

My brother’s question froze the second waiter, too. My brother allowed the waiter to stew in his discomfort for thirty seconds, and then my brother, without again looking at the waiter, said, “Give us five minutes, and we’ll be ready to order.”

When the waiter returned to our table, precisely five minutes later, he did not say a word. He stood, in silence, and waited for my brother’s instructions.

My brother placed our order, telling the waiter what we wanted, in what sequence we wanted the courses, how many minutes we preferred between the various courses, and what—if any—beverages we wanted with each course.

The waiter said nothing, but he nodded—and the waiter followed my brother’s instructions to the letter. The waiter served us, faultlessly, for the rest of our meal—and he never said another word.

When we were done with our dinner, we demonstrated noblesse oblige, and tipped the waiter 50 per cent of the bill.

This morning we will all go to the local nursery/greenhouse and pick out our Christmas tree. In my family, my mother has the privilege of selecting the tree.

At the nursery/greenhouse, we will meet up with my older brother and his family, because they, too, will be selecting their Christmas tree.

Once the trees have been selected, we will take my parents’ tree home and place the base in water, after which we will all go over to my older brother’s house and spend the day.

We shall help my older brother and his family trim the tree and hang evergreens (they will return the favor at my parents’ house tomorrow). My mother and my sister-in-law plan to bake a few Christmas cookies, simply to add to the kids’ excitement about the Christmas season getting underway. A dinner of prime rib is planned.

Dinner will be over by 6:30 p.m., because Josh and I plan to attend tonight’s Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra concert, which starts at 8:00 p.m.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Mitchum, Miles And Lean

Robert Mitchum and Sarah Miles confer with director David Lean during the filming of "Ryan's Daughter".