Jews, Tourists, Nannies, Central Park, Hats, and the Continental Hobo
By Very Special Guest Critic Scott Muskin | Film | July 7, 2009 |
The overture was suspiciously clean: JFK, depicted in vibrant, smudge-free plastic and sans-serif signage, even featuring a little tram that takes you to the subway. To belabor the point, plenty of handsome, crisply uniformed extras stood around helping people swipe their Metrocards.
If the audience was fooled, it didn't last long. What followed was a true New York scene: a tedious A-Train into the city, a ride seen by only the budget conscious or the public transportation addicted. As an artist, New York has in the past showed disdain for this perspective--the same disdain that used to drip like old espresso from the sculpted interns over in the Chelsea galleries.
But this is not that New York. This is a re-energized New York, in economic hard times. High Brow has become Whatever Brow Gets Me Funding, and these days New York reserves its best artistry for the common person. In past performances, New York could get by on mere bravado or self-engendered creative energy--spectators just went along with the ride, thrilled to be in the presence of such greatness. But that got old quick. The lavish set pieces in hipster restaurants, the blasé $500 shopping sprees in Nolita, the gratuitous sexual frivolity or all-night Bacardi binge--they don't cut it anymore. Audiences have found exciting new work in Austin, Portland, even Newark or the 'Dacks--places where the production is more relevant, and our tanking dollar buys more of it. New York has had to up its game.
The resulting New York, the Performance is mixed. Of course like always, the plot is terrible, goes nowhere. The writing is crass, often self-conscious, and trite. There is sickeningly obvious product placement, and not of the ironic sort either.
But the scenes! Who thinks up this shit? These days, with incongruity lurking in the alleyways where muggers used to, and with everything limned by an unsettling vanilla, all New York has going for it is its scenes. Its finest moments are literally moments, the kind of New York-isms that longtime fans will really dig.
Take that A-Train ride into the city, for instance. After a medical emergency delay featuring paramedics and a fat guy in a wheel chair sucking oxygen (BTW, WTF on that? a dose of reality? a comment on health care? a plea for to help the poor?), subsequent stops overflowed with all manner of human indignity. Particularly intriguing were the boisterous young people enjoying their summer recidivism, out in gaggles that the less informed of us would call "gangs." The blocking here was terrific--chaotic and yet infused with intimations of nefarious intention. It's the way a water buffalo must feel when he zigs, the pack zags, and the lions triangulate.
The artistic statement was clear: New York has an edge again. Stand clear of the closing hoodlums please! And yet the actors' faces were so sweet, clearly somebody's mama's baby. They had faces like halved cantaloupes, smooth and pure and gleaming with health and optimism--exactly the kind of thing you'd never expect as your last image. New York thrives in casting moments like this. There is a Tony in it for someone.
The overture's crescendo was a taut exchange between one of the pack's curly-haired lotharios and an old Italian man--what amounted to a howling match. Literally, they were howling. Face to face in the packed stockcar, heads tilted back, lips puckered to the overhead Jameson ads. Kind of shmaltzy, but elegant in its way.
Suddenly, there was Canal Street. It was a nice opening number and got lots of applause.
Act One tripped all this reviewer's triteness alarms: A walk through Central Park on a beautiful summer afternoon. Of course, thousands of people do it every day, but that doesn't make it great art. You gotta romance it some, turn the everyday into the evocative--that's when it becomes art.
The Central Park scene did not disappoint. It was sunny, well-choreographed, and callow with a sadness as old as the city itself. This is the brilliance of New York--it serves up all that sunny-afternoon joy, and yet includes a side of sadness bordering on the misanthropic: Here goes a softball games where young men peacock their marvelous steel shafts, or else dink into a double play, followed by an old, stroke-struck woman in wheelchair who slurs something unintelligible at her little Shitsu while her day nurse chats on a cell phone. Close by, lovers drowse on blankets within spitting distance of from a passed-out vagrant.
Longtime fans of New York, The Performance will no doubt bemoan the "been there, done that" nature of these images. In fairness, this reviewer did too, but it was more than balanced by that renewed edge: Take the drinking fountain bit, for one. Just before the close of this scene--a rousing, operatic number clearly indebted to Aaron Copeland--attention is focused center-stage on a drinking fountain. Clean, well-painted, and of a stylish, civic-minded design, it beckoned, as if to say, "come on, the water is perfectly fine and all these bottled water drinkers are just killing the environment and lining some shysters pockets!" Yet up close is revealed who the real shyster is: in the fountain's basin is a water-filled condom laying like a sausage. Oh the audience made to retch, all of us! This reviewer had never seen a condom so thoroughly inhabited, which clues you in to three things about him: he is not gay, he has an average penis, and the porn he watches isn't very STD aware.
As this reviewer is himself Jewish, he was a little taken aback to find this performance run through with Jews. It's one of the hackneyed shticks New York gets pegged for, reaching its nadir with Jesse Jackson's "hymietown" gaffe. Jews in New York...nu, what's to say?
Well, for one thing, New York seems to have found a fresh, self-possessed exuberance in the chosen people. There wasn't a Woody Allen in sight, and even the real Woody, relaxing after his angst-off with Larry David, was blowing his clarinet down at Carlyle for 100 bucks a head. No, these were self-possessed Jews, yarmulkes clipped to close-cropped hair, shirt-tails lilting in the breeze. They were not jabbering into their cell phones but politely explaining why the grandkids needed a nap more than a visit to Bubbe's place. These Jews seemed more like a Gotham pastime than a cultural minority--celebrated, liberated, and at ease.
New York also found a way, curiously enough, to shade this Jew-bilation slightly sexual. It was a magnificent sleight of hand to see the waddling Jewish woman of one's youth somehow turn alluring or even coquette-ish. Something about the light of this performance, or the costuming, revealed the sprightly, spazzy, energetic girl hidden in the angular 30-something mom shlepping a stroller down Park or Madison--the impression was that, after perhaps a few witty, sympathetic words with her in the Starbucks line, you might find her giving you a handjob in the synagogue basement during a Shabbat teen lock-in!
That's truly the power of art.
West Side Highway and Piers
This performance seemed obsessed with the public spaces. Perhaps it's emblematic of an Obama-esque focus on the public good, and the public works that are supposed to get our economy going again--not to mention the public itself, who voted a black man into the most powerful position in the world.
Whatever thematic reasons New York had for putting on this display, it both cheapened the overall performance and played to New York's long-heralded strengths. For surely, New York without quaint studio-apartment bedplay, or even a softly lit Tribeca dinner party--it's just not the same. Especially when the replacement scene is a stroll down the paved trails squeezed between the Hudson and the lower West Side Highway.
What makes exercising down there so attractive, by the way? The garbage? The Lance Armstrongs with bulging calves and water bottles filled with iced mocha? The exciting opportunity to have a femur crushed by a taxi at the helipad's VIP entrance? (Note to the producers: it's the Great Recession, morons, and pretty much all helipads are VIP.)
Still, this scene was not without its visual wiles: A dog run being pressure-hosed by a city worker, or listing daiquiri glasses, straws still listing in them, the relics of last night's last call.
Then there's the beautiful pathos created by juxtaposing tourist eye candy on the one hand and the old economy's decaying infrastructure on the other--the latter left to rot until some entrepreneur sees ROI in tearing it out. Old paddle boats and tugs interned in watery shadows, ashamed of themselves and sagging with age--a floating limbo meted out in wave after lapping wave. Then there's the stands of old pier piles, lapping out of the water like the villi in some forgotten and disused bowel.
Clearly, New York is an artist who knows heartstrings, and the Hudson will pluck them mercilessly.
Speaking of mercilessly, one thing New York never fails to include in any performance is a blistering brand of tourist mockery. This time it was the sunglassed spectacle of them mooing their way onto a Circle Line tour boat like so much SPF 50 hamburger. New York is known for turning tourist details into hilarious caricature, and this riotous depiction did not disappoint: The sulky teenagers ear-cuffed to their iPods, their elders equally hamstrung into ubiquitously tight khaki shorts.
New York seems to have spared them not even the dignity of appropriate footwear--choosing instead the squish of sneakers so white they should come with their own gated community. Still, New York didn't belabor the point, only allowed this gangrenous group to shuffle onto the boat, tickets in clenched fists, like the huddled masses they were soon to be lectured about through a loudspeaker--only much, much richer and less deserving of welcome.
There was also a touching moment featuring the USS Intrepid, the perpetually docked destroyer cum museum with gun turrets the size of oxen, the power of which some commander once conducted, like a symphony, with proud coordinated precision. Built seemingly to scale, its great mass lumbered with a quiet solemnity that owned the stage. Then an unkempt woman--perhaps a worker, perhaps a bored tourist--burst out one of the mid-deck doors to stand at the ship's gunwale and have a smoke. The commentary was crystal clear: all this concentrated force, this intimacy with death, those 19-year-olds risking life and limb for the "turn this, dial that, aim here" of what's in front of them--all for the benefit of shlubby, undeserving us. Nice work, New York, slipping meaning into your mockery.
One innovation New York has implemented with this most recent show is a Greek chorus of nannies. Neither foil nor harbinger, they do nothing for the plot, nor communicate a point of view of any kind--and yet they remain calling cards of some vague social bellowing.
Perhaps it's just bellowing for bellowing's sake. Sometimes they group themselves into stroller gaggles, but most often alone in a singular kind of way. Sometimes they are sweet and intimate with the kids, other times snippy with disdain. Most of them seem to be Haitian or of some other Carribe origin. Always they seem, in public at least, to be following the child in the stroller, as if deferring to their little lordliness.
Other than introducing an unresolved minefield of race, culture, family, and class, this reviewer wondered what the point was.
Intermission served hot dogs, followed by bagels, lox, a nice shmear, and capers. Clearly, the caterers got the memo.
Act Two tweaked our expectations a little, first with an unexpected number featuring Europeans of indiscernible origin. Well-known to longtime fans of New York City's performances, the traveling Euro--or Continental Hobo, as some call them--have become a kind of trope, the mirror before which the City both primps and shudders.
After 9/11 they were a sympathetic bunch, liable at cafes to share their hand-rolled cigarettes or purchase rounds of sake. During the Bush years, New York depicted them as vile and paternalistic. Their ever-present sneers made clear it was their way or the autobahn, and also you were wearing fashionless sneakers.
The current depiction robs Gunter, Henri, and Mathilde of their bombast. The current performance finds the average Euro checking a map, say, or asking directions or even saying "excuse to me" when you bumped into going down the subway steps. Oh, they're still stalking SoHo and spending their trust funds liberally and trying a "voulez vous couchet avec moi se soir?" with every American thing in a skirt, but somehow this performance smacked them upside their spiky-haired heads with some kind of reproach. It's as if the performance were asking them "How do you like your Angela Merkel now? Not so hot, is she?" Obama seems to have sapped their Euro-tude and put it to rest. Albeit temporarily, no doubt.
The Hat Bit
New York is a city of hats. What rival performers like Kentucky or Paris do for a certain kind of hat, New York does for its breadth of hats, for the commonness of hats. The concept of the hat, if you will. They are for sale everywhere, and the city has so many goddam people with so many styles, all walking on top of one another, that the supposition suddenly becomes yes, you too could wear a hat of some kind other than a ball cap. There are few cities, few artists, who can pull this off. Try wearing a fedora in Omaha.
In other words, the opportunity to buy a hat is a gift, the chance to ponder, digress, and discuss. The return gift we give is that sometimes we actually buy the hat.
New York, the Performance simmered this love affair with hats into a nice little simple syrup of a bit involving a wandering, inebriated tourist and a Sikh hat-hawker on Broome Street.
First we encounter a gay couple, who stop drunkenly over the Sikh's wares. One says to the other "I've been thinking of getting a hat like this." He's considering a brown woven number with a tonal brown band, and he tries it on and it looks great. "But will you wear it?" his partner says.
The decision is "no," and the gays move on. The Sikh is now left with the tourist, and the former isn't impressed. Whereas gays are like a two-for-one opportunity, tourists are trouble--inevitably they figure they can get a hat like this in Milwaukee, or Albuquerque, or wherever the hell they come from. So what they want is both the hat and the hat-buying experience, and experiences take time, and time takes money, and the Sikh just wants to spit on the whole thing.
He starts the ball rolling by telling the tourist that the brown woven hat, which a moment ago had caught the queer eye, is priced for the straight guy at 65 bucks, but the Sikh announces he will go half-price to $35. I dunno, says the tourist, who fingers a navy pin-striped alternative, which the Sikh gives the bald-faced lie of a price of $80, which he will cut down, sir, today, to $40. The Sikh even goes so far as to mention that this is fine wool, sir, top quality, among his best, and he says for you, he will take $33.
Tourist smiles. He believes in straight talk, so let's cut the bullshit about quality, etc etc. But he doesn't say anything for fear of riling the Sikh into an "Allah akbar!" Okay, the Sikh says, you give me $30. There is a convincing air of finality, like a thing best not discussed, a shameful thing both men should just put into their pockets and go on our ways.
Except the tourist knows his shameful thing is gonna have to spend the rest of the evening on his head. His resolve thus steeled, he says he can get a hat just like this in Minneapolis for $20.
Sikh replies, "okay, $28, sir" and again nods his head like he has been shamed and the tourist is to blame.
Tourist makes to walk away. Sikh goes to $25 and the tourist is empowered, drunk with the thrill of supply and demand. The Sikh is disgusted. "For you sir, $20."
"I'm gonna give you $18," the tourist says. He opens his wallet and casually hands over a crisp $20, patiently waiting for his change. The Sikh gives him two rumpled ones, then goes back to his hats, rearranging them like a dog licking is wounds. The tourist lingers. "Okay sir goodnight" the Sikh says and suddenly we feel for him. Goddam economy and goddam tourists!
The scene ends as tourist takes his two bucks then and pops into a pizzeria, orders a slice, and waits for it. The pizza guy takes his money, looks him up and down, and says, "Nice hat."
It's great to see New York returning to its jazz roots. For a while it toyed with the Mercury Lounge route, but the pop and rock stuff just wasn't holding up--at once pompous and paper-thin--and Casting just couldn't find enough locals to color up a realistic rock scene to rival, say, Minneapolis or Portland or Austin or even L.A., god help us.
But with jazz, New York becomes like a blind man at the piano--you know he can play, because why else would he be sitting there? Also New York likes jazz clubs because they can improvise the price of the drinks, and the average patron is so cool, he just says "right on man."
At first the current performance struck a confusing tone by erecting the set for Club 55 in the heart of a mini Castro district--one pictures the uninformed wandering next door and striking the most interesting conversation with a chap in a leather vest. The Club 55 is hilariously depicted in size to be about big as a toaster, like no club in real life could ever pull off. Downstairs and moodily lit, the serving staff are homely, jovial women who see the whole floor and can tell how many ones you gave them by fingertips.
Because the singer is from Osaka--again, hilariously--the place is full of petite Japanese men and women, so even at occupancy there is still a feeling of elbow room. The artist, backed by a band of white guys, was promoting a CD of vocal stylings to lyrics she made up to tunes by Coltrane and Monk and the like. Odd choice, New York: most of us don't associate Japanese women with vocal stylings at anyplace other than a karaoke bar. She was good, but in a workmanlike, if spunky, way. There was no power or intimacy. She did wrangle a few scales in interesting ways, and with grace, but nothing to shout about. It was a New York moment, both true to life and almost contemptuously bizarre.
New York wrapped up its most recent reconnection with jazz by shifting scenes rather inelegantly to a little bar on the edge of TriBeCa. Beers are served, and a serviceable roasted fennel salad. The bartender seems knowledgeable, has great tunes on the iPod, and a small combo setting up. The musicians were African American and looked serious as to their intentions to throw down some meaningful jazz.
The way the pianist tested out the house piano, plunking through a lazy riff, only to find it out of tune enough to order a 7 and 7--it raised such expectations among the audience, who fancies themselves, no doubt, jazz bloggers without the time to actually blog. Oh New York, what musical treat do you have in store for us? Will this be one of those moments when one can say "I was in this little dive, just having a beer and a roasted fennel salad, when..."
In a word, no. When they started up, the drummer--an old guy on an admittedly truncated set--started playing like he was knocking out widgets in a factory over in Newark, back when Newark had factories. It was a magnificent performance, so accurately capturing the lifelong musician at the height of his mediocrity, that the audience both gasped and moaned in one breath. This was a man who drummed like to prove he could make each slap of his stick the exact same in force and intensity. He played like a goomba, like it was his job to beat his drum set to death in 4/4 time. And as for the piano, well, if the 7 and 7 was helping it any, none could hear it.
The lights dimmed on this scene, then came back high again, just to taunt us. It was perfect.
A Fawning Assessment
Ah, New York...it was a performance well constructed and well received. No, you aren't your former self--now you're wrinkled as an old ten speed tire, gawdy as a tourist's sweaty plumber's crack. Back in your heyday, with maybe a little David Bowie or Ben Stiller thrown in just because you could, no one called it on anything. And why would we? It was so damn good.
But despite brief moments of brilliance and tragic complexity--the adagio of airborne human ash is something no one will ever forget--you started a slow decline. Where there was a shark, you jumped it (sometimes it was a whale in the Hudson, sometimes a former mayor wishing he were a whale in the Hudson). Then came the jaywalking laws and a cleaned up Times Square and bars with actual names on the doors and couture in the meatpacking district and, well, it's all too Jamba Juice nowadays. Sometimes it feels like you should just put the entire goddam Circle Line Tour up on stage and just leave it at that.
But then there are those moments like the ones outlined above, where you flex your cement and heave forth anew. At these moments, you are gaspingly gorgeous and no one would change a thing. It's nice to see you back.
When is the encore, and where shall we have the flowers delivered?
Scott Muskin is a Minneapolis writer. His first novel, The Annunciations of Hank Meyerson, Mama's Boy and Scholar, just came out this spring.
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