Monday, July 27, 2009

The Empty Nest Blues

On December 5, 1966, an intimate new musical starring two of Broadway's most beloved stars opened at the 46th Street Theatre. Based on Jan de Hartog's popular play, The Fourposter, I Do! I Do! was a perfect vehicle for the talents of Mary Martin and Robert Preston. With book and lyrics by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt, the show became an instant hit.

Although there are only two characters onstage, the show follows the course of a 50-year marriage between Agnes and Michael. The second act showstopper is a number called "When The Kids Get Married" in which the couple dream of all the things they've wanted to do but have had to postpone while raising children.

Like many couples, Agnes and Michael discover that their dreams have become a bit ragged as the years have passed by. What once seemed so appealing has become maudlin and embarrassing. To make matters worse, they're both a bit tired and have become stuck in their ways. If there is any chance of surviving, their marriage will have to go through some changes.

That's easier said than done.

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Written by Michael Lellouche and directed by Graham Guit, Hello Goodbye (which is being shown as part of the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) focuses on a well-to-do Parisian couple whose empty nest sends them hurtling toward a series of misadventures which severely strain their marriage. Alain Gaash (Gerard Depardieu) is a burly 50-year-old gynecologist leading a very comfortable life. His wife Gisele (Fanny Ardant) converted to Judaism when they were married and has, over the years, become more interested in Jewish culture than her husband. Born in Romania, Alain wasn't even circumcised and could care less about his heritage.

When their son decides to marry a Catholic girl and have the wedding ceremony in a church, his departure from the home sets off a restless spark in Gisele, who has had her fill of the in-laws. When Alain tries to pacify her with a new car, she deliberately wrecks it. informs her shocked husband that they need to do something different with their lives, and suggests a trip to Israel so that she can get in touch with her Jewish "roots."

Fanny Ardant and Gerard Depardieu

Although Alain has a long list of destinations he'd love to visit, Israel is far from the top. But to accommodate his wife, he books a trip to Israel where one misfortune after another awaits them.

  • Because they are not Israeli citizens, they cannot clear customs until the next morning and must sleep in the airport.
  • They quickly get suckered into buying a condominium that is under development, only to find out that the proper permits have not been issued and it may take years for the building to be completed.
  • In her attempt to learn about Hebrew culture, Gisele develops a crush on a handsome young pot-smoking rabbi (Lior Ashkenazi) and informs her husband that she won't have sex with Alain until he gets circumcised.
  • A job offer to come on board as a star gynecologist at an Israeli hospital evaporates into thin air after the gynecologist who was supposed to move to Philadelphia discovers that his wife is pregnant and wants to give birth to their child in Israel.
  • The shipping container that held 25 years of belongings was damaged en route from Paris to Tel Aviv and thrown overboard.
  • Without a job as a physician, Alain is forced to take a job washing and cleaning automobiles at a car rental agency.
After a series of humiliations, Alain decides to return to Paris and buys a pair of airline tickets. Gisele, however, wants to stay in Israel where she has found a new sense of meaning in her life.

Were it not for the fact that this film has two beloved actors as its stars, I doubt it would get much attention. Despite the contributions of Jean Benguigui as a man who befriends Alain at the airport (and spells his name Gash instead of Gaash) and Sasson Gabbai as a sympathetic chief of police who is also having problems with his wife, the indecision and serial misfortunes which haunt Mr. and Mrs. Gaash in Hello Goodbye don't really make for a very satisfying film.

Does it capture the dysfunctional behavior of a long-married couple who have been keeping secrets from each other and have trouble communicating with each other? Yes.

Is Hello Goodbye a movie that audiences will take to their hearts? I sincerely doubt it. Here's the trailer:

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Things aren't going too well for Judith Rosenfeld (Miou-Miou), either. The protagonist of another film about French Jews confronted with empty nest syndrome that is being screened at the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the middle-aged Judith is caught in the cross-current of her family's crises.

Judith's 75-year-old mother, Frida (Shulamit Adar), has been demonstrating increasing signs of confusion. Frida keeps showing up at the apartment where she lived with Judith's long-gone father, expecting to find him there waiting for her.

Judith's youngest son is finally moving out of the house and into an apartment he will share with friends. With his youthful energy gone from her home, Judith (who quit her career so she could stay home and raise her children) is at a bit of a loss. When her son makes a prank call to one of Judith's high school boyfriends, she is at first mortified but then curious to see what kind of man he has become.

Meanwhile, Judith's brother Simon (Charles Berling), is a political journalist who has always been the apple of his mother's eye. As far as Frida is concerned, Simon can do no wrong. Although he's happy to show up for lunch and take his mother boating, Simon cannot (or will not) accept the fact that Frida's confused and distracted behavior is a sign of advancing Alzheimer's disease. When Simon meets the attractive young lawyer (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) who has been renting the family's old apartment, an unexpected romance quickly starts to brew.

Charles Berling and Giovanna Mezzogiorno

While Simon has no problem getting involved with a younger woman, his ego can't handle the fact that his teenage daughter (Anais Demoustier) has ostensibly planned a weekend getaway with her father so that she can meet up with her boyfriend and spend most of her spare time in his arms. Struggling to accept Judith's counsel that his daughter is becoming a woman, Simon throws a self-centered temper tantrum which only serves to further alienate his daughter.

Written and directed by Cyril Gelblat, Cycles (Les Murs Porteurs) captures the anguish and loneliness of a divorced woman whose children no longer need her, who has little sense of self and who is becoming trapped by the demands of being a caretaker for her elderly senile mother. Even after Frida is moved into a mental health facility, it is Judith who visits regularly, combs her mother's hair, and deals with the medical staff.

Shulamit Adar and Miou-Miou

The film progresses quite slowly. As Frida's mental acuity deteriorates, Simon finds a new love in his old apartment and Judith must figure out what kind of future awaits her. Here's the trailer:

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Over at The Marsh, comedian Rick Reynolds is busy explaining what empty nest syndrome feels like for the the single father of two teenage boys. Among the many ways he has been described during his lifetime, the word "father" lies nearest and dearest to his heart. Perhaps that's because his own childhood was so horrible.

Rick's biological father died when Reynolds was three years old. His first stepfather turned the family home into a nightmare of alcoholism and domestic violence. His second stepfather seemed like the nicest guy in the world -- and was well on his way to becoming the perfect role model for Rick and his brother Mike -- until the man started robbing banks.

Reynolds begins his monologue (entitled Only The Truth is Funny: Midlife at the Oasis) by apologizing for certain personal quirks. He readily admits to being "anal, obsessive, vain, quick to temper, overly introspective, lazy, judgmental, insecure, and self-righteous" and, in the program notes, insists that "if you can find a more thought provoking and inspirational show you've seen about a middle-aged, self-obsessed, therapy-hating, crybaby from Petaluma, I'll refund the price of your ticket."

Cutting to the chase, Reynolds starts the show by explaining that the world is made up of two kinds of people -- creeps and assholes -- and then gives the audience a handy way to figure out which group they belong to. His act is quite entertaining and Reynolds shares many of his tales with the kind of intensity that befits a tortured comedic narcissist. One of his best stories can be experienced in this clip from one of Rick's previous one-man shows.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Smart Writing

Once upon a time I had a roommate who was a voracious reader. He would devour novel after novel with an intensity that was quite remarkable. One day, he stopped to tell me how much he was enjoying a particular author's style of writing. When I asked him to read me a page from the book he was reading, he proceeded to read it aloud as fast as he could in a completely flat monotone.

I was shocked.

Here was someone who loved to read and yet had no sense of rhythm, of inflection, or of the musicality of language. All he was concerned about was speed and consumption. How could I explain to him that half the fun of reading is the pacing of thoughts, the sounds of particular words, the use of tools like alliteration, and the mellifluous flow of language as it creates images in the brain?

Later, I would discover he was not alone. An acquaintance whose lover had bought him a computer informed me that the mere fact that he had now had access to a word processing program made it likely that he would write a book. "What are you going to write about?" I asked (knowing full well some of his limitations).

"Oh, I dunno, a book about a book, or something," he replied.

Another person in the room sighed and asked "Does he think it's that easy?"

What many people don't understand about writing is that words, sentences, paragraphs, and novels don't just spring forth in perfect form. A great deal of writing involves rewriting -- sculpting phrases, changing words to avoid repetition, and constantly adjusting punctuation so that a thought is properly framed. Depending on the style or subject matter, adding certain words or thoughts can dramatically reshape what a person has already written:
  • Do new words or thoughts contradict previous statements?
  • Do they maintain continuity?
  • Are they written in the same person or tense?
  • Do they adhere to the piece's structure?
All of these (and many more) considerations come under a linguistic microscope when writing for the stage or screen. Creating dialogue that can be spoken by actors is a process which may seem perfectly natural to the playwright, but might not work quite as well in rehearsal. Although a playwright may very clearly hear certain sounds in his head, those words take on a new life when spoken by another person.

There is really only one way to find out if the writing can stand on its own.

Many playwrights participate in dramatic readings, workshops, and "incubators" so that they can see what works -- and what doesn't work -- in front of a live audience. Words that a playwright thought were brilliantly funny may be met by a deadly silence instead of laughter. A literary gimmick might fall flat in front of an audience that doesn't understand what the playwright is thinking.

The Bay area is a hotbed of creativity for many art forms. For aspiring dramatists there are some specific venues in which to hone their craft. The Playwrights' Center of San Francisco has a year-long program of readings, many of which take place at Mama Calizo's Voice Factory. The Playground program is like a theatrical boot camp in which playwrights are regularly assigned a topic and given four days to create a 10-minute play. The best of the submissions are then cast and staged before a live audience (with minimal rehearsal time) so that the playwright can see his work come to life and learn from the process.

Writing a one-act play on short notice is not as easy as one might think. Even if a topic is assigned to the playwright, he must create a small group of characters, have them communicate an idea, build a beginning, middle and end to his narrative, and make the dialogue believable enough to have sufficient dramatic impact.

For playwrights who prefer full-length formats, there are numerous theatre companies that can provide staged readings or workshop productions of a new play. Although a playwright might be asked to work closely with the company's dramaturg (who can offer advice and critical support), seeing and hearing how an audience reacts to a raw script often triggers much-needed rewrites which can help to clarify the action, redefine a character (or characteristic) and tighten a play.

I enjoy attending readings because they allow me to witness a playwright grappling with an idea and hear what his script -- even in its rawest form -- sounds like. It gives me a sense of whether an emerging playwright has an imaginative process that can be used to create a stageworthy vehicle or may just be an extremely pretentious artist with a coterie of friends who keep stroking his ego instead of telling him that his work sucks. There are several curious factors to staged readings:
  • There are no costumes to hide behind, hence no distractions from the writing.
  • Because the actors have had limited rehearsal time they, too, are stretching their artistic muscles and applying their craft in an effort to quickly and intuitively bring new characters to life.
  • Words that may have read one way on the page take on new tones, beats, and cadences when shaped by a human voice (hence, the importance of good casting).
  • Dialogue which might have seemed natural in print can suddenly be revealed as stilted, artificial, or mechanically inept.
It's all a big crapshoot.

Summertime is often a period when staged readings are open to the public. The Playwrights Foundation has just wrapped up its 32nd annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival out at Fort Mason. Of the three readings I attended, Robert Henry Johnson's three-hour epic entitled
The Othello Papers showed the greatest promise.

In his play, Johnson explores what might happen if all the black characters in Shakespeare's plays refused to participate in future performances. There is great comic wealth (as well as social relevance) to be mined from this idea and Johnson seems well on his way to crafting a viable script which could be of particular interest to Shakespeare festivals around the world.

Staged readings also give audiences a different perspective on their local community of actors. Sometimes watching what an actor can bring to an unfamiliar text can be revelatory and introduce audiences to a talent they'll want to track in the future. Lance Gardner (who took on the role of Caliban) is exactly that kind of actor. Julia Brothers (who has been seen in numerous Bay area productions) demonstrated the kind of insight and wisdom a mature artist can bring to a fresh script during a reading of Christopher Chen's Anomienaulis.

Further down the Peninsula, Theatreworks (which just presented the world premiere of Tinyard Hill) is about to embark on its annual New Works Festival, which will include readings of three new plays and three new musicals:
  • The Sparrow and the Birdman (by Raquel Bitton and Chris Smith)
  • Auctioning The Ainsleys (by Laura Schellhardt)
  • The North Pool (by Rajiv Joseph)
  • Makeover (book and lyrics by Darrah Cloud with music by Kim D. Sherman)
  • Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (book by Joe DiPietro, lyrics by Valerie Vigoda, music by Brendan Milburn)
  • Tales From The Bad Years: A Song Cycle For A New Generation (by Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk.
Two examples of great writing brought to life (on stage and screen) are currently available to Bay area audiences. What sets them apart is not just the specific dramatic medium for which they have been crafted, but the pace at which lines must be delivered. They provide a fascinating contrast in style and technique.

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A play which requires only two actors can not only be artistically significant, it can also be quite a moneymaker. Some plays provide a tour de force for two actors taking on numerous roles (such as The Mystery of Irma Vep by the late, great Charles Ludlam or the Greater Tuna series of plays by Jaston Williams and Joe Sears). Other plays -- in which which two people portray only two characters -- can offer ongoing triumphs of casting while providing a sound economic engine for the playwright.

Just like ballroom dancing or a balletic pas de deux, these plays all require great teamwork. The actors must not only be able to shine in their own moments (which may include numerous monologues), but must be attentive listeners when it is their partner's turn to take center stage. Think of the balancing acts seen in these two-character plays
As I stress the partnership that must exist between two actors, let me share the good news that Spare Stage's production of The Unexpected Man has been granted several more weeks of performance at the Exit Theatre. Directed by Stephen Drewes, Yasmina Reza's beautifully-crafted play has been cast with Ken Ruta and Abigail Van Alyn, whose years of acquired theatrical craft glow in a performance of rare tenderness, quality, and sensitivity.

Ruta portrays an aging novelist who is traveling from Paris to Frankfurt by train. A dyspeptic old curmudgeon with an outsized ego, his thoughts reveal a bitterness about growing old and not being regarded with the kind of authority he thinks he deserves from his children, his colleagues, and the rest of the world. Sharing the train compartment with him is a sophisticated Parisian widow who has read all of his books and had a crush on him for years.

Photo by: Peter Prato

As the play progresses, the characters take turns examining their inner thoughts through a series of soliloquies as the audience waits to see which one will step out of his comfort zone and attempt to break the ice. The woman wonders whether she should simply take out her copy of the man's latest novel and start reading it while the man wonders if she reads at all.

Photo by: Peter Prato

Reza's writing is glorious in its seeming simplicity, its natural flow, its wit and humanity. The play is perfectly suited to the artistic goals of Spare Stage:
"Our company produces plays that provide a dynamic balance between actor, director, and playwright. We favor eloquent language and elegant simplicity in staging. We nurture creative ensemble, and invite you to join us in exploring complex ideas on a Spare Stage."
This exquisite production of The Unexpected Man offers Bay area theatergoers the kind of rarified experience in which they yearn for the characters to move forward, yet feel reluctant to disturb the air hovering in the theater for fear of breaking the mood. Stephen Drewes's remarkably subtle staging offers audiences a golden opportunity to watch two mature professionals doing what they do best -- performing in such a naturalistic style that it seems as if they are genuinely living their roles instead of acting them. You can and most definitely should order tickets here.

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Whereas Reza's writing often has the delicacy of a souffle, the screenplay written by Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche and Jesse Armstrong for Armando Iannucci's wildly hilarious and politically incorrect farce, In The Loop, requires sharply-defined characters who can deliver tongue-twisting tirades at a lightning pace. The further we get from the idiocy of the Bush administration, the more insane it looks in retrospect -- especially the scenes in which a barely wet-behind-the-ears bureaucratic (whose father was obviously a big Republican donor) tries to include I Heart Huckabees on the list of DVDs recommended for viewing by the troops in Iraq. The main characters include:
  • Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the short and fairly incompetent British Minister of International Development who clumsily utters an on-air reference to a war that has not yet even been started in the Middle East.
  • Toby Wright (Chris Addison), his new aide who has just arrived in the middle of an erupting crisis.
  • Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), the weary Assistant Secretary of Diplomacy for the Bush administration who, among other problems, is having severe troubles with bleeding gums.
  • Linton Barwick (David Rasche), a neoconservative American politician who, in addition to being a good Christian, may have formed a secret committee to plan ways in which the United States can launch a war in the Middle East.
  • Lieutenant General George Miller (James Gandolfini), a powerful Pentagon bureaucrat who is a long-time friend of Karen Clarke's.
  • Malcolm Tucker, (Peter Capaldi), the British Prime Minister's venomous Director of Communications.
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison

In order to appreciate the genius of Capaldi's characterization, first take a look at how it reads on paper in this memo that was posted on the film's blog:
Dear lovely people of DFID.
As you know your esteemed boss went on the radio and announced that there would definitely not be a war. Which seemed strange considering: (a) he was meant to be talking about your hard work combating malaria, malnutrition, AIDS, global poverty, all human suffering, etc. and (b) he was explicitly told not to express an opinion on war unless he wanted his cock chopped, minced and fed back to him as a kind of bloody taramasalata.
In his defence he was being interviewed by Eddie Maier - Radio 4's fiercest attack dog after Sandi Toksvig. I am, of course, being massively sarcastic.
So. What have we learnt?
1. Simon Foster on the radio is a worse idea than giving Russell Brand and Joseph fucking Fritzel the breakfast show on Heart.
2. Simon has special educational needs.
What should be done about this? In the medium term he will have his cock minced and fed back to him as a kind of bloody taramasalata. In the shorter term steps must be taken to prevent a repeat of this twattery.
What will you do? You will not let Simon out of your sight. You will not let Simon out full stop. You will keep him away from windows. You will sit on his fucking face.
You know the game Simon Says? This is like that. Only it's called Simon Doesn't Say Because He's Had His Tongue Cut Out And Minced And Fed Back To Him As A Kind Of Tonguey Taramasalata.
As you also know we have some important American guests arriving in town. It is imperative that your Minister does not spurt his unwanted emissions at them or near them. I don't want him saying anything remotely controversial. I don't want him saying anything uncontroversial. Not even : 'James fucking Corden's everywhere at the moment'. NOTHING. I want him as quiet as a very timid mime artist who's been bound and gagged and murdered. Underwater.
Do I make myself understood? The answer is yes.
Thank you for your attention. I look forward to not hearing from you again.
Thank you for your attention.VB, Malcolm."
How do you transfer that kind of writing to the screen so that it practically jumps out at the audience? Watch this clip:

If you want to see (and hear) the British equivalent of Rahm Emanuel (just taller and with all of his fingers intact), you won't want to miss In The Loop. Iannucci's film is a wild romp through the underbellies of London and Washington that will leave you breathless with amazement at the political backstabbing, genuine inepititude, misplaced priorities and outrageous egos of the movers, shakers, and fixers who think they make the trains run on time.

One word of caution: Due to the rapid-fire patter of some of the Brits onscreen, you may not be able to catch every word if the audience around you is laughing too loudly (count on it). A second viewing of the film is highly recommended. Here's the trailer:

Friday, July 24, 2009

Boys To Men: The Musicals

I never had a bar mitzvah. Technically, that means I never had a chance to stand before a group of family and friends and say "Today, I am a man." That codification of the journey from boyhood to adolescence and adulthood was the road I never traveled.

It's not a particularly sensitive issue for me. On stage, screen, and in literature, I've watched boys turn into men in situations ranging from William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of the Flies to the bar-mitzvah party scene in 1962's Broadway musical I Can Get It For You Wholesale and on through to 2006's Keeping Up With The Steins.

Working for nearly 10 years in a YMCA summer camp, I had a unique chance to observe many a young man blossom and mature. Some went crazy with the onset of puberty, others get lost in patterns of arrested development. Some learned how to become self sufficient and shoulder the responsibilities of becoming a man while others, as they aged, couldn't seem to shake the Peter Pan syndrome best described in Carolyn Leigh's and Moose Charlap's song from the 1954 musical version of Peter Pan.

Ever since 1904, when James M. Barrie created the character of Peter Pan, audiences have fantasized about learning how to fly and being able to achieve eternal youth. Time, however, waits for no man. Four stage productions seen in the past week examined what happens when the innocence of youth is lost (whether by choice or necessity). Two of them, by sheer coincidence, happened to be stagings of Peter Pan.

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During the 15 years that I wrote about opera, I would occasionally have the chance to see two different productions of the same opera within a brief period of time. The experience often made for fascinating comparisons in how a stage director approached a classic, how the interpretations of specific artists differed, and what might happen if one director chose to update the opera to a different time and/or place.

The differences between the two productions of Peter Pan seen this week in East Bay venues are fairly obvious:
  • Westminster Summer Musicals stages its productions in an outdoor 1500-seat amphitheatre that was built as a WPA project in Joaquin Miller Park and dedicated as a memorial to California writers in 1940. You can see a list of the shows produced during the past 43 years under the artistic direction of Harriet and Jim Schlader. Since 1998, the company has had a special Kids Come Free deal for members of the community. Many families picnic outdoors before the performance (some have been coming to Woodminster for three or four generations).
  • Berkeley Playhouse is a new company which has been performing at the Ashby Stage but, starting next season, will make Berkeley's Julia Morgan Young People's Performing Arts Center its new home. The company also offers music conservatory courses for all levels (and all ages) of performers, including summer musical camp.
  • The stage of the Woodminster Amphitheater is at least 10 times the size of the Ashby Stage. Whereas the Woodminster stage is extremely wide, the Ashby Stage is almost square-shaped.
  • Woodminster Summer Musicals has a functioning orchestra pit capable of holding enough musicians to perform the standard orchestrations for Broadway shows. For its production of Peter Pan, Berkeley Playhouse used a severely reduced orchestra with drastically modified orchestrations.
With those physical differences in mind, it's interesting to see how the same show could be so different in performance. Directed by Joel Schlader, Woodminster's production starred Susan Tilson as Peter Pan with Robert Moorhead doubling as Mister Darling and Captain Hook.

Robert Moorhead as Captain Hook (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

Supporting cast members included John Tichenor as Smee, Krista Yu as Tiger Lily, Deanna Ott as Wendy, Anthony Ferguson as Michael, and Grant Lowenstein as John (with Todd Schlader doubling as the Croc and Nana, the trusty St. Bernard who acts as nursemaid to the Darling children). Added eye candy was supplied by the hunky torso of dancer Joven Calloway as one of the Indians (Calloway has the kind of elegantly defined musculature that used to make famous photographers like Kenn Duncan and Roy Blakey shutter with excitement).

A purely technical consideration gave the production an extra level of appeal for me. Usually, when performed in a proscenium theatre, the audience cannot see the machinery used to fly Peter and the children back and forth across the stage. With the rigging used by Flying by Foy (the company that designed the original 1954 production starring Mary Martin) exposed to the audience, it was fascinating to get the full mechanical view of how the stagecraft works.

Photo by: Kathy Kahn

Tilson's Peter was quite traditional and an utter delight. Moorhouse's Captain Hook was deliciously droll and highly entertaining. Special kudos to Bong Dizon for choreography which managed to fill the amphitheater's huge stage and take some of the action out into the audience.

Susan Tilson as Peter Pan (Photo by: Kathy Kahn)

By contrast, the Berkeley Playhouse production seemed severely overproduced and was hampered by a horribly weak performance from its musicians. Flying sequences were designed so that Peter could soar out above the first row of children in the audience. Brandy Collazo's Peter was decidedly more boyish and, although occasionally more athletic, nowhere near as endearing. Gabriel Grilli's Captain Hook offered a sense of pure comic melodrama.

Earlier this year, Berkeley Playhouse staged a production of Once On This Island of such exceptional quality that I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming. To my great disappointment, the company's staging of Peter Pan fell far short of the high artistic standards set by its previous production.

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Down in Palo Alto, Theatreworks offered the world premiere (the company's 52nd) of a new musical by Tommy Newman and Mark Allen. Directed by Robert Kelley, Tinyard Hill takes place in a small town in rural Georgia during the summer of 1964. What struck me most about this production was its lean efficiency, its remarkable balance between each character's needs and emotional conflicts, the way it steadily built sympathy for the two young lovers, and its appealing musical score, which neatly kept propelling the plot forward.

Tinyard Hill was workshopped at Goodspeed Musicals, the National Alliance for Musical Theatre, and The Human Race Theatre Company before receiving its "original developmental full production" from the Red Mountain Theatre Company in Birmingham, Alabama. While I would hesitate to describe this new musical as a country-music operetta, it is so smoothly crafted and through-composed that, in its current condition, it could happily play off-Broadway and please audiences on a national tour. With only four characters onstage, it's easy to keep track of everyone's problems.
  • David Kingsley (Chris Critelli) is a young country blacksmith working for his father. At 18, he has big dreams of converting the family business into an auto body shop. David's a good ole country boy (brighter and more sensitive than one might expect) with a long life ahead of him -- even though he recently had to register with his local draft board.
  • David's father Russell (James Moye) returned home from serving in World War II determined that he and his family would never get involved in another war. Before shipping off to Europe, he had been dating the neighbor's girl and, although they really seemed to be in love and had talked about getting married, his country needed him.
  • May Bell Whitehead (Allison Briner) may have gotten pregnant by Russell before he left town, but miscarried. She subsequently married another man -- who eventually left their loveless marriage. May Bell now refers to her ex-husband as "the bastard." Sharp-tongued and occasionally short-tempered, she is quick to remind David that "I don't hate you, I hate yer Daddy." A talented seamstress whose pies always win honors at the county fair, May Bell is a firm believer that all those Vietnamese people need to do is find Jesus. Isn't that special!
  • Aileen Garrett (Melissa WolfKlain) is May Bell's niece from New York. Engaged to be married, she has fled all of the attention being lavished on her in the big city to visit her aunt, who promised to make Aileen's wedding gown. Although she believes she is getting married for all the right reasons (her fiance Henry is an honorable man and her mother is happy with their engagement), something seems to be missing from Aileen's life. Something called passion.
Melissa WolfKlain and Allison Briner
(Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

It doesn't take long for the curious, picture-taking Aileen to take a shine to David. As the two start spending more and more time together, May Bell and Russell have to work throughtheir longstanding animosities toward each other for the sake of the younger generation. May Bell, who considers herself to be socially well connected in her small town, doesn't want Russell's son giving her niece any second thoughts about love and romance when Aileen is already engaged to be married. Russell, on the other hand, is desperate to find a way for his son to avoid being sent to Vietnam.

Things quickly go wrong after Russell takes May Bell up on her offer to try to bribe the Mayor in the hope that she can help keep David safe from the draft. Meanwhile, David and Aileen have fallen head over heels in love.

Chris Critelli (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

When David realizes that he can't keep running away from things now that he's a grown man, he and Aileen decide to get married in the few days remaining before he must report for duty. The show ends with May Bell as bridesmaid and Russell as best man at a small, intimate and sudden wedding.

Photo by: Tracy Martin

Although there is great humor and pathos in Tinyard Hill, there isn't much dialogue aside from a steady stream of zingers coming from May Bell's mouth. Most of the show is written in long arcs of song that have a kind of pop rock/country feel to them. With a simple unit set designed by Tom Langguth, appealing costumes by Cathleen Edwards, and some excellent lighting by Pamila Gray, the show now stands proudly, from start to finish, as a solid piece of polished musical theatre.

One couldn't hope for a tighter ensemble than the four singers who have been so beautifully directed by Robert Kelley. Allison Briner and Chris Critelli take top honors, with James Moye and Melissa WolfKlain providing solid support. Tinyard Hill is a wonderful new musical whose characters will work their way into your heart with a peculiar kind of Southern charm. You can order tickets here.

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On Wednesday night, Boxcar Theatre presented the world premiere of a new street musical with book and lyrics by co-artistic director Nick Olivero and music by Michael Mohammed. Directed by Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky, RentBoy Avenue is an extremely ambitious project that was undermined by some obvious technical and structural problems. Its fatal flaw is that it never really gets the audience to care about any of its characters. In his playwright's note, Olivero described some of the difficulties he faced in trying to bring this project to life:
"I started out trying to write a hip new musical people would want to come and see -- and lo and behold, prostitution seemed an appropriate subject matter. In December of 2007, when we decided to theme this season Fairy Tales, the show began its growth, incorporating familiar tales and iconic characters. When our global financial system began deteriorating last fall, the show evolved yet again, taking on what I think is the core of the piece: What are you willing to do to survive? It is important we not judge the choices these characters make, but rather ask why they must make those choices in the first place.

I suppose I am tired of being constrained by apathy. There are some miserable parts of the world out there, and it is getting increasingly difficult to remain numb. At times tonight you may find yourself offended, cringing at strong language, or wanting to get up and walk out -- yeah, I'm right there with you. This writing process was new territory for me. I did try, however, to remain as truthful and honest to this harsh world, this desperate environment, and yet as hopeful as possible. Beneath the layers of dirt and grime and the numerous F-bombs that make David Mamet look like a sissy children's storybook writer is a tale of innocence, a tale of scared children -- or maybe it's just a modern Hansel and Gretel. You tell me."
Despite songs that are provocatively titled "The Streets of Shit and Shame," "Punk Rock Slut," "Ordinary Run of the Mill Dirty Old Man," and "The Anthem of Freaks," there was absolutely nothing that offended me about RentBoy Avenue. My virgin ears did not burn. Nor was I ever bored. The play just didn't grab me.

Photo by: Peter Lui

The action takes place on "a piece of shit street in some city otherwise known as the world's trash can." The walls of the theater have been spray painted with graffiti. The rest of the set (designed by Don Cates) consists primarily of a movable staircase and mobile units of multi-level scaffolding.

The costumes by Sarah Beth Parks capture the grunge of the homeless (at one point in the evening, a character taunts someone sitting in the audience for being a the kind of sucker who would spend $25 to come inside and see what he could have experienced just outside the theater for free). Among the denizens of the constantly changing neighborhood are:
  • Sister Mercy (Michelle Ianiro) a no-nonsense charity worker who manages a local soup kitchen, hands out condoms to hustlers and prostitutes, runs a needle exchange program, and is not afraid to use physical force to bring a sinner to his knees.
  • Trashcan Sally (Erica Richardson) is a fat black woman who had been building a promising career as a singer until she got hooked on drugs and fried her brains.
  • Twink (Jepoy Ramos) is a male hustler who thinks he's really cute, hot and smart.
  • The Dirty Old Man (Donald Currie) represents all the homophobic, self-righteous Johns who come to the ghetto in search of fresh male flesh with which they can enact their fantasies. They quickly become consumed with guilt, violent toward their tricks, and then go home to their wives and children in suburbia.
  • Mark (Bradly Mena) is a bruised and battered 17-year-old veteran of the streets who, although quite proficient at giving blow jobs, would still like to believe that he's straight.
  • Jackie (Danelle Medeiros) is a sassy female teen prostitute with a nasty drug problem.
  • The Pimp (Anthony Rollins-Mullens) is the neighborhood's economic engine for the street people.
Danelle Medeiros and Anthony Rollins-Mullens
(Photo by: Peter Lui)

The play begins with the arrival of David (Bobby Bryce), a 14-year-old from Manhattan, Kansas who has been kicked out of his family's home for being gay. Given a bus ticket to the big city, David has arrived in a rundown section of town where, unbeknownst to him, his sturdy boy soprano will soon become a major asset in selling his body to chicken hawks.

Bobby Brice as David (Photo by: Peter Liu)

The first person David meets is Mark, who throws some leftovers into the hands of the broke and hungry newcomer. David may have a sweet, young face but he is not stupid. It doesn't take long for him to start learning the ways of the street and showing up for free soup at Sister Mercy's kitchen. Before long, he is dealing drugs under the watchful eye of Jackie's pimp. Meanwhile, Mark has gotten used to taking unnecessary risks with closeted married Johns who have a perverse need to exorcise their demons through violence.

Bradly Mena and Donal Currie (Photo by: Peter Lui)

When David offers some affection, Mark recoils (demanding that David pay him $50 to make sure the tenderness they shared didn't mean anything). Later, when Sister Mercy offers Mark a bus ticket to Santa Fe, he tries to get Jackie to leave town with him. Jackie's pimp puts a quick stop to that fantasy.

At the end of the show, we see David -- still the young boy with a soprano voice -- as someone who has quickly grown into the role of a sweetly sadistic master, leading around an obedient elderly John on a leash. He is now quite at home on the streets.

Olivero's script takes most of his characters on distinctly unpleasant emotional journeys, some of which lead to growth, some of which remain mired in addiction and abuse. The basic problems with the show are that (a) certain moments just don't seem to gel, (b) few emotions other than anger and resentment are ever expressed, and (c) the characters never elicit any sympathy from the audience.

There were some problems with sound engineering on opening night which made it extremely difficult to understand Olivero's lyrics (the music is most unmemorable). While additional performances may give the cast greater strength in putting the show over to the audience, my sense is that RentBoy Avenue, while quite artistically ambitious, will probably not develop legs.

As I left the theatre, I found myself yearning to go home and listen to Cy Coleman's brilliant score for The Life, a 1997 musical that dealt with the pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and street people who inhabit Times Square. Although this show did not get much exposure outside of New York, it contains one of Coleman's best scores.

If you do not own the CD of the show's musical score, it's well worth purchasing. In the meantime, here's a number from the show as performed by the original cast at the 1997 Tony Awards ceremony in Radio City Musical Hall.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Setting Up The Jokes

In 1995 a small, poignant and occasionally painful film written and directed by Peter Chelsom went largely unnoticed despite a cast of magnificent actors. Funny Bones focused in on the career angst of Tommy Hawkes (Oliver Platt), the son of world-famous comedian George Hawkes (Jerry Lewis) who kept hoping to follow in his father's footsteps. There was just one problem: Tommy wasn't funny onstage.

Traveling back to Blackpool, England (where he had spent his youth), Tommy auditions numerous comedy acts in his effort to try to become a funny person. Along the way he meets the naturally brilliant Jack Parker (Lee Evans) who is a talented, but deeply tortured comic and Jack's mother, Katie (Leslie Caron).

Funny Bones may have been one of the first films I've ever come across that seriously addressed the question of whether one's ability to be funny is genetic or can be learned. It's a gem of an indie film that got far too little attention and is well worth renting from Netflix. The recent San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented two programs that dealt with the concept of "funny" in a unique way: by showing audiences what some comedic talents were like without the voices we have come to association with their work.

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On Sunday morning, July 12, movie critic Leonard Maltin hosted a program dedicated to the early silent cartoons that starred Oswald, The Lucky Rabbit. The creation of Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, these shorts were obvious predecessors to the library of Mickey Mouse cartoons. It turns out that copyright issues prevented Disney from continuing to use the Oswald character within America (although the rabbit certainly made his presence felt elsewhere around the globe). See if you can spot the similarities in this drawing:

Among the films shown that morning (with piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin) were:
  • Trolley Trouble (1927)
  • Oh Teacher (1927)
  • Great Guns (1927)
  • Mechanical Cow (1927)
  • All Wet (1927)
  • The Ocean Hop (1927)
  • Bright Lights (1928)
  • Oh What A Knight (1928)
While lesser-quality prints of Trolley Trouble and Mechanical Cow are available on YouTube (see below), they provide an invaluable lesson in the craft of writing and communicating comedy via the silent screen. The prints screened at the festival were provided by the Walt Disney Company, which regained the films in 2006 as part of an assets swap with Universal.

Back in 1927, when these films were first released, the only sound accompanying them in theaters was probably the local pianist (who was casually improvising at the keyboard while watching the screen). Back then, there were no such sound effects such as alarm clocks, clanging horns, exploding guns, or anything else like that. As a result, words often had to be inserted into the action to explain that a car might have been a taxi -- or that someone might be selling milk.

While the soundtrack that accompanies each of these shorts is highly effective, it adds several layers of interpretation to each movement that were not necessarily available to audiences at the time of the film's release. Try watching one of these cartoons on your computer without any sound and you'll get an idea of how carefully Disney and Iwerks had to set up certain gags.

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In 1926, the great vaudevillian W.C. Fields appeared in his third starring role in a silent film entitled So's Your Old Man. Shown at this year's festival (with Philip Carli accompanying the film at the piano), this comic gem gave audiences a rare chance to watch Fields in action, but without his trademark voice.

Born in 1880, Fields ran away from home at the age of 11 to become a juggler in vaudeville. By the time he made his Broadway debut in 1906, he had already been headlining on stages throughout North America and Europe. While his juggling gave him great skill in handling physical tricks, he had also learned how to strengthen his act by adding sarcastic comments.

At first, one would be suspicious of how well Fields could handle the demands of silent film without being able to inject his usual, snarling comments into the action. But So's Your Old Man proved him to be a master of comic timing, especially when given a sure-fire script which allowed him to play off everything from a pony to a man trying to shave while aboard a moving train. Fields's sight gags when asked to tee off on a golf course had the audience in stitches.

Curiously enough, a sound version of So's Your Old Man was released just eight years after the silent version, with Fields again starring as Professor Bisbee and the young Larry "Buster" Crabbe as Bisbee's future son-in-law. Instead of inventing a shatterproof windshield, the sound version had Professor Bisbee inventing bulletproof automobile tires. Bisbee's daughter was still in love with a wealthy young man from "the other side of the tracks."

You can watch You're Telling Me! (1934) in sequential segments on YouTube starting with this clip. Many of the same stunts are visible in the later film, performed by a master of comedy.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mining Gold From Man's Imperfections

This much we know: nobody's perfect. And yet the supposed path to perfection has been lining the pockets of alchemists, snake oil salesmen and other entrepreneurs for centuries.
  • How many millions of dollars do you suppose have been made selling diet supplements, weight-loss programs, or Relaxicisors?
  • How many men have purchased pills and other devices guaranteed to increase the size of their penis or strengthen their erections?
  • How many people have had BoTox injected under their skin or undergone plastic surgery in an attempt to look younger and more attractive?
  • How many men and women have dyed their hair, tattooed their skin, bleached their anuses or pierced their bodies with decorative jewelry in order to make a fashion statement?
Face facts: Someone either paid for or collected a fee for the goods and services involved in the nurturing of an insecure consumer's ego. Someone made money off each of those transactions. Whether or not the results actually improved the consumer's self esteem remains questionable.

I used to think that only Jews were neurotic enough to pursue such pipe dreams so enthusiastically. After all, with Joan Rivers acting as cheerleader-in-chief for plastic surgery and Dr. Joel Kaplan pushing penis pumps and pill supplements online, it would be easy to jump to such a conclusion were it not for the numerous plastic surgeons who have fattened their wallets by performing East Asian blepharoplasties on insecure Asian women.

From Hans Christian Andersen's fable, The Ugly Duckling, to John Waters' rollicking Hairspray, the arts have been filled with tales of people whose imperfections continued to plague them until they finally developed enough self-esteem to embrace themselves for who they were -- warts and all. Four programs being shown at the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival show how bucking society's stigmas can reap comedic and financial gold.

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I've been fat all my life. I've been refused admission to a gay bathhouse whose desk clerk didn't want me to "ruin the ambience" for the club's other clients. I've had gay men recoil from having their picture taken with me. And I'm more than familiar with the ways in which fat people are told, day after day, by one person after another, that they are the last minority that it's still okay to hate.

Once, many years ago, when a Arab chubby chaser had traveled to visit me, he was thrilled to be able to purchase DVDs of chub and bear porn so that he could sneak them back to Kuwait to share with his friends. He came back to my apartment one day glowing like he had just met Santa Claus and informed me that "I just meet someone who was like TWO of you!"

Saud was happily watching his chubby porn video in my bedroom one afternoon when my friend Winston stopped by to pick up a book. As Winston walked into the bedroom, the sight of naked chubby gay men going at it on the television screen caused him to react as if someone had stabbed his eyes with ice picks.

If you're the kind of person who is squeamish about seeing fat people being openly affectionate, walking down the street half naked, or fighting back against the taunts of skinny assholes, then A Matter of Size might be a difficult consciousness-raising experience for you. Trust me when I tell you that it is also a hugely satisfying movie that is tightly written, filled with love as well as the anguish of rejection, and great fun to watch.

Written and directed with great insight and compassion by Sharon Maymon, A Matter of Size is the chubby man's answer to Rocky Balboa. The movie focuses on a group of obese Israelis who keep failing to make the grade in a weight-loss support group. Among the film's main characters are:
  • Herzl (Itzik Cohen), a single, middle-aged mama's boy who has been fat since childhood. When Herzl's father died after his weight brought about the collapse of their apartment's balcony, the seven-year-old Herzl thought what he had just witnessed was quite funny. Herzl is the kind of obese man who actually thinks that if he hands the weigh-in nurse his watch, it will lessen his results on the scale.
  • Aharon (Dvir Benedek), an insecure macho man who discovers that his wife is cheating on him. Even as he and two large friends from a weight loss support group are crammed into the back of a small car, Aharon firmly believes that the reason there are no sumo wrestlers in Israel is because there are no fat people in the Holy Land.
  • Gidi (Alon Dahan), a fat closet case who has grown accustomed to being rejected in gay chat rooms -- until the night he gets an instant message from an extremely handsome and athletic man who loves bears.
  • Zehava (Irit Kaplan), a social worker who hates it when men tell her lies, and usually ends up drowning her sorrows in food. When Zehava tries to extend the rules for good nutrition she has been given in her weight loss group to a group of women in prison, the results are totally humiliating.
  • Mona (Levana Finkelstein), Herzl's manipulative mother who wants skinny grandchildren. An expert in the "You're too fat, here -- eat this" school of dysfunctional love, Mona doesn't like being told by her son that she's got a few extra pounds of her own.
  • Geula (Evelin Hagoel), the chain-smoking diet counselor from the weight loss support group who leaves double-edged messages on Herzl's answering machine like "I can't stand to see you turning into a whale. Bye-bye, sweetie."
  • Gira (Ofira Rahamin), Aharon's wife who is cheating on him with an even fatter man than her husband.
  • Kitano (Togo Igawa), a Makuya Japanese Zionist who also owns a sushi bar. Kitano's employees all think that he dropped out of coaching sumo wrestling because of gambling debts owed to Yakuza.
Writer/director Sharon Maymon

The basic plot is simple. After being kicked out of his weight loss support group in the small Israeli city of Ramle, Herzl's employer at an airport restaurant buffet asks him to train another employee to take over Herzl's job. Why? Customers have complained about the sight of Herzl's ungainly 155 kilos (347 pounds) hovering by the salad bar.

With his feelings hurt once again, Herzl quits his job and decides he would rather wash dishes in a Japanese restaurant. When, during a break, he notices the restaurant's Japanese employees excitedly watching a sumo match on television, he is shocked to see fat people as the target of adulation rather than derision. A co-worker, Ito (Yuki Iwamoto), suggests that Herzl ask the restaurant's owner, Kitano, to train him for a sumo competition. Herzl takes the idea one step further and decides to start an Israeli sumo team with his fat friends. What follows is far from the usual journey of self discovery.

Maymon's script has a firm handle on all of the emotional wounds and coping mechanisms of fat people. He finds surprising ways in which to give his characters strength, courage, make them feel sexy, and have them win over the hearts of the audience. I sincerely doubt that anyone would be immune to the pathos of the performances by Itzik Cohen and the radiant Irit Kaplan as two fat people in love. Here's the trailer:

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If the love story at the heart of A Matter of Size seems a bit odd, just wait until you get to see Mary and Max. Written, designed and directed by Adam Elliot, this animated gem features the voices of Toni Collette as a young Australian meeskite and Philip Seymour Hoffman as an obese, New York Jew with Asperger's syndrome. Narrated by Australia's Barry Humphries, this film deserves a special award for the best use of Puccini's humming chorus from Madama Butterfly.

It took me all of five seconds to fall head over heels in love with this film. If you took the most hopelessly morbid insecurities of Jules Feiffer and Woody Allen, brought them to life through the process of claymation, and imbued them with the bleakly sardonic sensitivities of Tim Burton and Charles Addams you'd get some idea of the dry wit and comic gold awaiting audiences who see this movie.

The heroine, Mary Daisy Dinkle, is described as having eyes the color of muddy puddles and a birthmark the color of poo. Her mother, Lorraine Vera Dinkle, is addicted to cooking sherry, smoking cigarettes, and has a nasty habit of "borrowing" items from the supermarket by hiding them up her dress (she once got a frozen package of fishsticks stuck to her bra).

Mary's father has spent most of his life working at a teabag factory and pursuing his love of amateur taxidermy. She has a crush on her neighbor (Damian Cyril Popodopolous), who has a severe stutter and hopes to become either an actor or a cake decorator. Living across the street is an old man in a wheelchair who suffers from agorophobia.

One day, Mary decides to write to a complete stranger to find out how babies are born in America. Randomly choosing a name from the New York phone book, she begins a pen pal relationship with Max, whose multiple neuroses could make Woody Allen seem overly self confident. Although Max often finds solace in talking to his invisible friend, Mr. Ravioli, he and Mary share a love of chocolates (as well as an Australian cartoon show) that brings them closer and closer over the course of the next two decades.

Elliot's full-length feature is a masterpiece of animation which includes everything from the snarkiest kind of gallows humor to the funniest death of a mime ever to be caught on film. It's hard for me to accurately convey the beauty of Elliot's story, the drollness of his script, the visual charm of his artwork, or the twisted kind of neurotic Jewish tenderness conveyed in his film. You really have to see it to believe it. I can assure you that, once you do, you will love Mary and Max unconditionally. Here's the trailer:

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One of America's greatest, if mostly forgotten love affairs was with a talented writer and actress named Gertrude Berg. The star and creator of the radio and television series The Goldbergs, she wrote more than 12,000 scripts over the course of a brilliant career. Although it's hard to remember any specifics, I have fond memories of watching The Goldbergs when I was very young. And, as Molly Goldberg herself would have said, "So nu? What's not to love?"

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival is presenting a double whammy with two programs devoted to Gertrude Berg. First, there is a brilliant new documentary by Aviva Kempner entitled Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, which shows Berg's brilliance as a scriptwriter, actress, and businesswoman. While many people may have some familiarity with the story about Philip Loeb's departure from the cast of The Goldbergs, they may not be aware of how Gertrude Berg stood up to network executives who gave her two days to fire him. She looked them right in the eye and said that if they did not back down from their threat, she would use every platform at her disposal to inform her customers not to buy their products. Keep in mind that, at that time, the two most respected women in America were Eleanor Roosevelt and Gertrude Berg.

I remember our family joking about how my grandmother used to write "two golubs of milk" in her recipes. When pressed to explain what a "golub" was, she replied "You start pouring from the bottle of milk and it goes "golub, golub, golub."

Former New York Times restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton once described the challenges she faced while researching her family's recipes for her wonderful cookbook entitled From My Mother's Kitchen. Her mother, who had been a superb baker, had never really written down any of her recipes. One day, as they were about to begin another session in the kitchen, her mother asked "Are going to cook today? Or are we going to measure?"

That sentiment is perfectly captured in Molly's Fish, one of the three segments of The Goldbergs that will be shown during the festival:

When a sales rep from a food processing company tastes Molly's fishballs at a local bazaar, he insists on flying her out to Chicago so that his company can try to document and reproduce her recipe. Molly (who has never measured anything in all her years in the kitchen) fails to recreate the same dish in a laboratory setting. She returns home to the welcoming embrace of her family, where her fish will always be treasured.

Kempner's documentary and the three segments of The Goldbergs that will be screened at the festival are filled with such tenderness and charm that you'll probably feel warm all over by the time the film ends. What you will undoubtedly notice is that:
  • Molly's voice had a musical lilt to it that was infectious.
  • Molly's Yiddishkeit malapropisms ("Wait a minute while I just go hang myself in the closet," or "Please, throw an eye on the table") have lost none of their charm.
  • Unlike subsequent sitcom housewives, Molly Goldberg was a zaftig lady and a genuine balabusta. The only other person of her physique to be seen as a regular character on family sitcoms was Aunt Bee (Beatrice Taylor) on The Andy Griffith Show.
  • Like many Jews of that time, most of the actors seen on The Goldbergs had not had reconstructive nasal surgery in order to get their noses "fixed."
  • Molly was a master of gently "touching" people as a way of showing her affection.
Offstage, Berg was quite a sophisticated and wealthy woman who lived on Park Avenue. The love and affection that was returned to her by Americans far and wide can be seen in this clip from her appearance as a mystery guest on What's My Line?