French exhibits and Chautauqua ties to the Big City
NEW YORK – Hot Town! Summer in the City.
If those words bring you memories from a hit record of 1966, by The Lovin’ Spoonful, it will give you a good idea of how my past week has progressed. Our oldest son had his birthday in the past week, and is now nearly twice as old as my wife and I are. My strong desire was to go out to Manhattan, where he lives, and to at least take him out to dinner for his birthday, but the cost and the inconvenience were on the verge of stopping me, when I received an invitation to have lunch at the Consulate of the French Republic, during the same week. The combination set me looking for more reasonable ways to travel there, and hotels which wouldn’t break the bank, and I ended up spending two days in the great metropolis.
New York has gotten vastly more expensive in recent years, with theater tickets costing up to $200 or more, and hotels and restaurants costing far more than they did only a few years ago. Still, going there seems like going to the center of everything. In my two days, I managed to attend a hit Broadway show, to conduct an interview with a Jamestown native who has gone far in the classical theater, which you might have read about in a newspaper early last week, because there wasn’t time to get it into the column, to do some spectacular book shopping – even though my three favorite book stores in the city have yielded to the current decline in our culture – and to dine with both my son and with the French Republic.
Let me tell you just a bit about what’s happening at the other end of our great state.
We have a number of readers with either relatives or business dealings in the great city of Philadelphia. Since the city is somewhat removed from our area, I’m not able to pass along all the arts news which they send us, but I know a number of people who ask often about the city, and especially its first rate art scene, so I try to send along as much as I can.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is one of a long chain of five museums which stretch between the wonderful Museum of Art, toward the center of the city. The other four are the Perelman Building, which showcases textile and rare books; the Rodin Museum, which houses more sculptures and other works of art by Auguste Rodin than any other museum outside of Paris; the Barnes Foundation, which shows the hundreds of impressionist paintings and African Masks which until recently were housed in the former home of their owner, Dr. Albert Barnes; and finally, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which both teaches artists at the early stages of their careers, and shows extensive displays of their creations.
The Philadelphia Museum held the lunch in New York City’s French Consulate, to announce three exhibits of art by French artists which will be on display soon in the museum. I’m sure no one would be surprised if I said the food and the atmosphere were splendid.
If you can make your way to Philadelphia in the fall, it will be well worth your while.
The first and most prominent of the three exhibits is called ”Leger: Modern Art and the Metropolis.” It will open Oct. 24, and run through Jan. 5, 2014. The focus of the exhibit is the painting ”The City,” which was created by Leger in 1919. It is cubist – or post-Cubist – in nature, and demonstrates the way, when an individual looks down a street of a modern city, he is overwhelmed by giant circles, squares, spirals, and other shapes. Other artists who lived concurrently with Leger and created in similar styles have works which are also included in the exhibit. These include Picabia, Exter, Gerald Murphy, Mondrian, and the architect Le Corbusier.
The second French-themed exhibit is called ”The Surrealists: Works from the Collection.” It will open Nov. 3, and run through March 2 of next year.
Surrealist artists created images which sought to tap the unconscious mind of the viewer. They were most active in the first half of the 20th Century. Salvador Dali, perhaps the artist most associated with surrealism, painted ”Soft Construction with Boiled Beans,” which he described as a premonition of the horrific violence of the Spanish Civil War.
Joan Miro created ”Dog Barking at the Moon,” which created an unlikely juxtaposition of different images, to demonstrate how each of us deals with a wide variety of ideas and experiences, and often must process and deal with them simultaneously.
Other artists whose works have been included in the Surrealism exhibit are Photographer Man Ray, Max Ernst, Dorothea Tanning, Kay Sage, Marcel Duchamp, and Roberto Matta.
Opening Sept. 14 and running through Dec. 8, an exhibit of works by Barbara Chase-Riboud will show the first comprehensive survey of her Malcolm X Steles.
Included are the four bronze and folded wax sculptures which she created in the late 1960s, inspired by the life and works of Civil Rights leader Malcolm X, plus the nine additional works which she created later, on the same theme. Also included are her series called ”Le Lit,” or ”The Bed,” and well-known works such as ”All That Rises Must Converge/Gold,” from 1973, and ”Tantra #1″ from 1994.
If you’re planning your autumn schedule now, I heartily encourage you to consider Philadelphia. The museum has a good web site at www.philamuseum.org, which can help you to plan.
In the days before television and home video, the most popular form of entertainment, in our country, was burlesque. These were variety programs, built upon a few women who danced and removed a bit of their clothing, often using props such as large feathery fans, numerous balloons, and other objects, to be certain that while you got a hint of their charms, the audience never really saw anything too spicy.
Between the dance numbers came a variety show, including mostly comics telling jokes, but also including piano players, singers, and other forms of entertainment. Strangely like Italy’s famed ”Commedia dell’ Arte,” the comics in burlesque shows often adopted a recognizable character. Jack Benny’s character as a penny pincher and Jackie Gleason’s well-meaning but oafishly loud characters are examples of these characters which might be still recognized today.
Now playing on Broadway is a play by Douglas Carter Bean, called ”The Nance.” The Nance in a burlesque show was an effeminate man who was usually the butt of insulting jokes by a more aggressive comic, and whose humor was based on the number of times he would seem right on the verge of saying something naughty, only to say something innocuous, at the last minute. ”I have a new neighbor: an artist who is very handsome. I would just love to scrutinize his work,” the Nance would say, drawing out the first syllable of ”scrutinize” until the audience was certain he was about to make a sexual suggestion, only to complete a harmless sentence.
Modern readers are probably familiar with the artist Liberace, who wore flashy, effeminate costumes, and whose television and night club shows were wildly popular in the 1960s and ’70s.
Bean’s play is focused on one of those Nance characters, a man named Chauncey Miles, who is portrayed in the show by Nathan Lane. Chauncey’s misfortune is that his burlesque character is more than just a character, it’s a fairly accurate capture of his own personality.
Politically, Chauncey is a confirmed conservative, who believes with all his heart the speeches by conservative politicians who say that they are in favor of low taxation and reduced government interference in the lives of citizens. He works very hard for the election of politicians with whom he agrees.
At the beginning of the play, Chauncey visits the famed automat, the restaurant where sandwiches and other plates of food were made by a cook, and placed behind rows of small glass doors. Dropping the appropriate coins for the items desired – usually a nickel – into a slot enabled a customer to open the door and remove the food item. Since the owner didn’t have to pay a waitress or waiter, he could charge less for the food. Many actors who later became stars – including Jamestown’s Lucille Ball – would write about the days when they had no money, so they would go to the automat and get a cup of hot water, then stir tomato ketchup into the water, to produce a tomato soup which was better than nothing, if you were hungry.
One of the automats – the one in Greenwich Village – had a reputation that gay men might meet other gay men in the automat there, as long as they left the building separately and met up with their new friend at another location. The vice squad watched customer’s behavior vigilantly, and men who asked another diner to pass the salt and then said ”thank you,” when someone did, might be hauled away in handcuffs, and often were severely roughed up by the police in the process of the arrest.
On his visit to the automat, Chauncey meets a young man from Buffalo named Ned, who has been sleeping on park benches and eating out of dumpsters, behind restaurants. He invites the man to his apartment, and the two form a relationship. Sadly, Ned is not just exchanging sex for money, he has become fond of Chauncey and wants to form a closer relationship. But, Chauncey is so used to being the butt of jokes and being the source of disgust and loathing, he isn’t able to accept affection and runs away from the possible relationship.
The central event comes when New York City is preparing for the 1939 World’s Fair. Those politicians Chauncey has been supporting decide that more tourists will come to the city and they will spend more money, if they don’t see anything they don’t approve of. They begin ordering the arrest of anyone who even looks effeminate, even if the person doesn’t do anything illegal. Chauncey gets himself punched around by the police and spends some time in jail, and finally realizes that his heroes are people with personal agendas which sometimes connect to right or wrong, but for whom self-interest is the only guiding light.
Nathan Lane is a pleasure to watch and to hear, in the role of Chauncey. His firm faith in his politics, and the depth of his despair, when they turn out to be only shills is deeply moving. Jonny Orsini is saddled with the difficult role as Chauncey’s would-be lover, Ned. The playwright doesn’t give him any material to make us believe in his genuine affection for the comic. Just being good looking and earnest is supposed to be enough for him to build a character, and it isn’t enough.
Broadway veteran Cady Huffman is warm and wonderful as Sylvie, one of the burlesque dancers who begins to sense that her ability to wow the audiences may not have long to last, and who is a genuine friend to Chauncey, although she is unable to get some self-respect through his defensive wall of self-loathing.
”The Nance” is currently playing at the Lyceum Theatre, on W. 45th St., in Manhattan. It was produced by Lincoln Center Theater, and directed by Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten.
When I learned I was going to the city, I asked a number of people at Chautauqua if I might be able to contact some of the alumni of Chautauqua’s excellent arts training programs, while I was there, because I know many readers are very interested in following up on the accomplishments of the young people whose careers we have had the opportunity to see in their early stages.
Vivienne Benesch, Artistic Director of the Chautauqua Theater Company, was kind enough to arrange a meeting with two of her company’s alums. Gabriel Ebert who recently won the Tony Award as Best Supporting Actor, for his role in the current successful production of ”Mathilde: the Musical.” and Frankie J. Alvarez, recently the title character in the Asolo Rep Company’s ”Hamlet: Prince of Cuba,” and soon to share the lead in a new HBO television series with television and Broadway star Jonathan Groff, agreed to catch local readers up on what’s happening in their careers. Sadly, my travel plans were changed, by forces beyond my control, and the young actors weren’t able to accommodate the change, in their schedules.
We’ll do our best to talk with them again, but I wanted to let you know about two more Chautauqua Alums who are making a success in the big tent.