Thursday, July 2, 2009

Maybe I Should Get a Tattoo, Too

I wish I'd seen Times Square before they cleaned it up, but when I went to New York in my misspent youth, I always went to Harlem or the Village. Now--except for the theaters on the side streets--Times Square's become a generic tourist attraction, with Toys R Us, a Hershey store, Hard Rock Cafe, etc., etc., etc.

I'm not so much nostalgic for the X-rated sleaze that used to infest the area as confessing a certain sadness when any distinctive place becomes just like everywhere else. Pretty soon, all of America will look the same, and you'll have to ask the locals to know where you are.

One measure of how little I get out these days is how surprised I was at the number of people I saw with tattoos. I don't just mean boys and girls with nose or eybrow rings and magenta hair, or the bouncer-like types guarding the Hard Rock Cafe. I saw more than a few women with tattoos pushing baby carriages, including one with what looked like green vines running up her left arm, under her sleeve, over her chest, and up her neck.

The last time we went to New York, I agonized over whether to wear a suit to the theater. I knew better this time, but I was still surprised to see an older man wearing a polo shirt, bright red shorts, and running shoes without socks take a seat a few rows in front of us.

At least he wasn't passing a bucket of fried chicken to his seatmates.

It made me nostalgic for a time I know only through movies and stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a time when men and women dressed up to go to the theater. Why, back then men even wore suits to baseball games!

Nowadays, of course, it's gotten harder and harder to tell who the grownups are, because most of us who aren't anymore still want to pretend we're young.

Walking towards the train at Union Station in Washington, I saw two women who appeared to be in their seventies, both dressed in the kind of multi-colored bell-bottomed clothes some hippie chick might have worn to the Fillmore 40 years ago.

It reminded me of the couple with gray-streaked ponytails,
sandals, blue jeans, and tie-dyed t-shirts that I saw in the supermarket years ago. They were in the vitamin aisle, and the man had a bottle close to his nose, wire-rimmed glasses on his forehead, so he could read the fine print.

Later, out in the parking lot, I watched them get into a PT Cruiser with hot-rod flames on the sides. It had handicapped plates.

On Broadway

My wife and I just got back from New York, where we stayed in a nice little hotel--the Mela--and saw two plays, the revival of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, starring Rupert Everett and Angela Lansbury, and God of Carnage, which won Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Actress (Marcia Gay Harden.)

I'm not going to write reviews here (I did too much of that working for The Washington Post's Book World). But it's enough to say I liked both enormously.

I'd wanted to see them because of their casts--Lansbury, of course, but also Harden, Jeff Daniels, James Gandolfini, and Hope Davis in God Of Carnage. I wasn't disappointed. The acting in each play is excellent and I felt the way I imagine my son does when I read one of his favorite stories, enchanted and enthralled, willingly suspending my disbelief.

Both plays are laugh-out-loud comedies, though you laugh for different reasons at each one.

Blithe Spirit, a seance goes haywire, and successful novelist Charles (Everett) finds himself haunted by the ghost of his first wife, Elvira (Christine Ebersole). As good as Everett, Ebersole, and Jayne Atkinson are (Atkinson plays Charles' second, put-upon wife, Ruth), it's Lansbury as the wacky, bicycle-riding medium, Madam Arcati, who steals the show.

Lansbury's 83, but she cavorts around the stage with the energy and enthusiasm of a far younger woman.

A far darker comedy, God of Carnage tells of a couple Alan and Annette (Daniels and Davis) whose son has assaulted the son of Michael and Veronica (Gandolfini and Harden) on the playground, knocking out two of his teeth. What starts as an amicable meeting to discuss the incident quickly turns ugly as the couples trade insults, drink more than they should, and tear the masks off each other and themselves.

It was all great fun. New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley put it best: "Never underestimate the pleasure of watching really good actors behaving badly."