Friday, March 31, 2006

Really Old Bars

Old Town Bar on 18th Street between Broadway and Park is one of New York’s oldest bars. You can tell by the urinals in the men’s room – they’re like bathtubs set upright, they’re so huge.

I found it one evening last summer. I was going to a one man, one act play off Union Square – alone – and I was early. I wanted somewhere to get a quick drink and sit and read. Where in the City can you do that? I wandered the streets around Union Square for twenty minutes, slowly circulating outward until I saw the red neon: Old Town Bar. Perfect.

It’s hard to pin down Old Town’s clientele because it’s just a bar. Not a hipster bar, or a “design” bar, or any type of bar at all. That’s not to say it doesn’t have character – it does: the ornate ceilings look about 20 feet up and the mirrors behind the bar are stained from what looks like one hundred years of smoke and water damage.

Speaking of smoke, New York Magazine quoted the manager on how Bloomberg’s smoking ban had affected Old Town (and four other restaurant/bars):

“To us it seems like a wash; we’ve lost customers. But it’s had benefits we didn’t expect, like there’s more turnover at tables, particularly with women who light up a cigarette after a meal and hold up a table for another fifteen minutes. And we have chandeliers that once we clean them, they stay clean. If the law were overturned, yeah, we would allow smoking again. We’re an old-style tavern where cigar smoking and things of that nature are part of the experience.” (New York Magazine, April 3, 2006)

It’s true – Old Town is the type of bar where you ask if they have matches these days and the bartender’s face lights up. He’ll hand you a nice box of them with a night-time photo of the bar on the front.

I thought I read an article in New York Magazine about Old Town and a handful of other really old bars in the City. Turns out I read it framed on the wall at Old Town. The article was in New York -- in January 2000. Old Town opened in 1892.

Another New York article tells about the Bridge Café, which opened in 1794. McSorley’s, the only other really old bar I’ve been to opened in 1854 (or 1862, depending on who you ask) and didn’t let women in until 1970. The above article says: “poet e.e. cummings penned a poem entitled “i was sitting in mcsorley’s.” In it, he describes the bar as “snugandevil.”” The waiters – gruff middle-aged men – wear these strange thin cotton bartender jackets the likes of which I’ve only seen in the UK.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Hedda Gabler at BAM

I bought tickets to see the Australian production of Ibsen's 1890 play Hedda Gabler at the Brooklyn Academy of Music a couple months before it started. I was excited to see a play I'd only read, and even more excited to see famous actors star in it. Cate Blanchett palys Hedda Gabler and Hugo Weaving, a fellow Australian is Judge Brack. I was also eager to see the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where the play was staged.

I went with the knowledge that both the New York Times and the New Yorker had given baddish reviews – I didn’t read the New Yorker’s and I only read the Times till the part when Charles Isherwood says the cast “merrily kneecaps” the play.

The one other thing I read in the Times before putting it down as that the audience seemed to enjoy the butchering of the play. This was true. There was a standing ovation by a good deal of the audience. If it wasn’t for my Midwestern manners, I wouldn’t have clapped at all – my date didn’t.

The play started with a jarring, shrill Auntie Tesman, by an actress whose performance turned out to be the worst in the play. To those who accuse Ms. Blanchett of upstaging her fellows, this is the upstaged – but anyone outside a backwoods community theater would upstage this Auntie Tesman. She was acting in a different play, one that called for a busybody and a folksy matron.

But Auntie Tesman’s lack of gravity set the tone for the rest of the play. Where we expected drama and foreboding, we got comedy and no signs of Hedda’s impending sacrifice. My date whispered that they were playing it like Oscar Wilde instead of Henrik Ibsen. That was exactly right.

There are elements of a given play that are open to interpretation, things that can be manipulated, highlighted, and dropped. One can always stage a late nineteenth century drama in the 1930s. It’s popular to take Richard III to a twentieth century fascist setting. But if a director is going to make a drama into a comedy, he or she must do it wholly.

This interpretation took all of the moral weight out of Hedda Gabler and installed petty one-liners to lighten the mood on the way to a suicide. The result was that we (a sad few of us) wondered why Hedda became so sad all of a sudden. The shooting at the end is a scene so wrought with tension and so built up that the last line of the play, Brack’s “people don’t do such things!” should come as a release. It should be a bizarre and ambiguous statement that fills the audience with wonder.

Instead, we are rushed to the suicide and Brack’s final words come off as an accidental punch line.

Blame bad casting and worse direction. Cate Blanchett did well with what she was given, and she was perfectly cast. I can think of no better Hollywood actress for the part. And Hugo Weaving, our beloved Mr. Smith of the Matrix was an ideal Judge Brack. He brought a creepiness and depth to the part that is only hinted at in the character’s lines. The chemistry between Weaving and Blanchett was the only in evidence.

Lövborg was a joke. Yes, the part has little stage time, but it is as vital to Hedda’s dark process throughout the play as Brack’s is. To put a dumb Orlando Bloom clone in this spot is disastrous. Sure, the character is ruggedly handsome, but he’s not an idiot. And Tesman’s bald pate put him a full generation older than Lövborg. We’re supposed to get the opposite impression, though they should clearly be the same age – about 30. Lövborg should look haggard and aged by stress and experience. Here he looked like a male model.

What makes Ibsen’s play so shocking, even today, is Hedda’s fatal strength, her alienation, her connection to her father, and finally, her gender issues. The director of this production seemed afraid of that strength – though Ms. Blanchett didn’t – and as a result, every opportunity to make the audience uneasy was used for a joke. At every point where we should be getting more nervous about Hedda’s mental state, we are allowed to chuckle. A glowing portrait in the hall hastily made the connection to her father, and all the gender trouble is gone. Hedda is more than a tomboy. She is the daughter of a general who wanted a son. She (and the audience) is painfully aware of that, and she mistakes resolve for masculinity. There is no hint of that here.

The final scene came as if it were from a different play, and stunningly, the audience cheered, perhaps star-struck. This production dumbed down Hedda Gabler and tried to reassure the audience until it was too late.


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