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About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)

Friday, February 17, 2006

    TT: Kirk Douglas, master painter

    Here's a little taste of my next “Sightings” column, which appears biweekly in the “Pursuits” section of the Saturday Wall Street Journal:

    Fifty years ago, a film director known for his fluffy musicals rolled up his sleeves and shot a movie about a great artist—and it was good. Not only that, it made money.

    Vincente Minnelli’s “Lust for Life,” which was released on DVD last week, is that rarity of rarities, a high-culture Hollywood biopic that isn’t unintentionally funny. To be sure, the snobs of the day tittered at the thought of Kirk Douglas playing Vincent van Gogh, and even now the film doesn’t get much respect, though a few latter-day critics have gone out of their way to praise it. One of them is David Thomson, the much-admired author of “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” who calls “Lust for Life” “as moving as anything in the American cinema.” He’s right...

    As always, there's lots more where that came from. See for yourself—buy a copy of tomorrow's Journal and look me up.

    UPDATE: The Journal has posted a free link to this column. To read the whole thing, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ 02/17/2006 12:00 am | Permanent link
    TT: Successful succession

    All together now: it’s Friday! I’m still out of town, so Our Girl has kindly posted the weekly Wall Street Journal drama-column teaser, an all-Broadway edition in which I hold forth on the new cast of Doubt and the new revival of Barefoot in the Park:

    Few tasks are so ungrateful as replacing the star of a Broadway hit—unless you’re Eileen Atkins, who just took over Cherry Jones’s part in “Doubt.” One of the great stage actresses of our time, Ms. Atkins doesn’t appear in the U.S. very often, and her last stint on Broadway was in a shoddy piece of theatrical goods, “The Retreat From Moscow.” John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer-winning play, by contrast, gives her plenty of elbow room to pass a miracle. As always, she delivers: Ms. Atkins’ stupendous performance is the best piece of acting in town….

    Was it Neil Simon who invented the kind of play in which ordinary people talk like stand-up comics? If so, then “Barefoot in the Park,” Mr. Simon’s first megahit, belongs in the Smithsonian, preferably under glass. I know I’d rather see it there than on Broadway, even in a production as effective as the revival that opened last night at the Cort Theatre. Indeed, this “Barefoot in the Park” is something of a triumph for Scott Elliott, the highbrow director whose whip-smart production of Mike Leigh’s “Abigail’s Party” is still running Off Broadway. I wouldn’t have guessed Mr. Elliott to be the kind of director who’d be really, really good at staging slapstick, but most of the biggest laughs of the evening come from the crackling precision with which he puts Amanda Peet, Patrick Wilson, Jill Clayburgh and Tony Roberts through their physical paces….

    No link, so proceed as follows: (1) Buy a copy of the Friday Journal. (2) Go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with immediate access to the full text of my review, along with lots more art-related coverage. (By the way, here's an unsolicited blogospheric tribute to the Journal’s arts coverage.)

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ 02/17/2006 12:00 am | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Perfection, which is the passion of so many people, does not interest me. What is important in art is to vibrate oneself and make others vibrate.”

    George Enescu

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ 02/17/2006 12:00 am | Permanent link
Thursday, February 16, 2006

    OGIC: Slow blogging ahead

    I hate to be idle when Terry's away, but I probably don't have much blogging in me this week. Up until last night, I had been working full-throttle against various deadlines with the full cooperation of my health. Within about 12 hours of my being clear and free, however, things broke down throatwise, and I spent today sick in bed. It wasn't the worst day I ever picked to get sick; in between bouts of that ultimate medicine sleep, I found distractions both on the ice and on the page. More to say about the latter soon, I'm sure. Just to remove the element of suspense, I like it, I really like it, though it's also the case that it has seemed heaven-sent for convalescence—the soothing literary equivalent of tea and honeyed toast on a tray.

    Planning to rally and report for duty tomorrow morning, so I'm for bed now. I'll at the very least check in tomorrow night. Meantime, check out our confrères in the right-hand column.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ 02/16/2006 1:14 am | Permanent link
    TT: So you want to see a show?

    Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.

    Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.

    Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter, strong language, one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
    Bridge & Tunnel (solo show, PG, some adult subject matter and strong language, reviewed here, closes Mar. 12)
    Chicago (musical, R, adult subject matter, sexual content, fairly strong language)
    Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, implicit sexual content, reviewed here)
    The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes July 2, reviewed here)
    Sweeney Todd (musical, R, adult situations, strong language, reviewed here)
    The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)

    Abigail’s Party (drama, R, adult subject matter, strong language, reviewed here, closes Apr. 8)
    Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)
    The Trip to Bountiful (drama, G, reviewed here, closes Mar. 11)

    In the Continuum (drama, R, adult subject matter, closes Saturday, reviewed here)
    Mrs. Warren's Profession (drama, PG, adult subject matter, closes Sunday, reviewed here).
    The Woman in White (musical, PG, adult subject matter, closes Sunday, reviewed here)

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ 02/16/2006 12:00 am | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Progress celebrates Pyrrhic victories over nature. Progress makes purses out of human skin. When people were traveling in mail coaches, the world got ahead better than it does now that salesmen fly through the air. What good is speed if the brain has oozed out on the way? How will the heirs of this age be taught the most basic motions that are necessary to activate the most complicated machines? Nature can rely on progress; it will avenge it for the outrage it has perpetrated on it."

    Karl Kraus, “The Discovery of the North Pole,” (Die Fackel, Sept. 1909)

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ 02/16/2006 12:00 am | Permanent link
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
    TT: Almanac

    "Why is it that we have enough memory to recollect the most minute circumstances of something that has happened to us, but not enough to remember how many times we have recounted them to the same person?"

    La Rochefoucauld, Moral Maxims and Reflections

    posted by terryteachout @ 02/15/2006 12:00 am | Permanent link
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
    TT: Handing off

    Sorry to be so unforthcoming, but the joint is jumping. I wrote all day yesterday and I've got to write all day today, after which I'll go hear the Lascivious Biddies at Makor (you come, too!). On Wednesday morning I'll be heading out of town yet again, returning just in time for a Friday-night preview of the Broadway revival of The Pajama Game on Friday night. I'm not taking my computer with me, either. Instead, I'm leaving my routine postings for Our Girl to publish, and I expect she'll be putting up a few things of her own as well.

    See you next week. Happy Valentine's Day!

    posted by terryteachout @ 02/14/2006 12:00 am | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "I’m a romantic—a sentimental person thinks things will last—a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t."

    F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise

    posted by terryteachout @ 02/14/2006 12:00 am | Permanent link
Monday, February 13, 2006
    TT: Request time

    If anyone reading this blog knows an especially good restaurant in Cape May, New Jersey, kindly send me an e-mail containing mouthwatering details.

    Much obliged!

    posted by terryteachout @ 02/13/2006 4:03 pm | Permanent link
    TT and OGIC: Apologies

    Our server went down some time Sunday morning and returned to life a few minutes ago. We don't know what went wrong, but we're glad to be back!

    posted by terryteachout @ 02/13/2006 11:58 am | Permanent link
    TT: Up to your knees out there

    I went down to Broadway on Saturday night to see a press preview of the new revival of Barefoot in the Park. It had only just started to snow when I left, and cabs were still easy to find. By the time the play was over, though, the night sky was full of swirling clouds of moist white flakes, and it was snowing furiously when I got up the next morning, having been awakened by the sounds of cheery children and crunching snow shovels. New York City had ground as close to a halt as it ever gets, which isn’t very close. The first thing I saw when I looked out my third-floor window was a bundled-up fellow walking his dog.

    It was still snowing when I headed back down to Broadway in the afternoon to see the new cast of Doubt. Broadway theaters don't shut down for anything short of a 9/11-magnitude disaster, and the biggest snowstorm ever to hit New York didn’t make the cut, so I wrapped myself up tight and hit the road, giving myself an extra twenty minutes just in case.

    Blizzards mean different things to different people at different times in their lives. To a fifty-year-old drama critic recovering from congestive heart failure who has to make his way to and from the theater district in two feet of blowing snow, a blizzard can be a fearful nuisance, depending on his schedule and his frame of mind. Fortunately, I live a block away from the subway and wasn’t in any great hurry. The streets and sidewalks were slippery but passable, and everyone I saw between my front door and the subway station was smiling. Most New Yorkers, however grumpy they may be on an ordinary day, respond festively to the short-lived chaos of a snowstorm. So did I, in part because I remembered the last time I’d been to a Broadway play in really cold weather, pausing every ten yards or so to catch my breath, wheezing and gasping and wondering whether I’d ever see the Great White Way again. Now I was strolling briskly down the street like everyone else.

    No sooner did I reach the subway platform than a Broadway-bound train pulled into the station and whisked me away. I got to the theater district a half-hour ahead of schedule and took temporary shelter in a pizza joint, where I read M.F.K. Fisher’s Serve It Forth as I sipped a ginger ale. I looked out at the half-empty streets of the theater district and pondered her wise words:

    An early evening meal—a long evening. A long evening—what to do with it? There is a fairly good play, a passable movie, a game of bridge—surely some way to kill a few hours.

    But an evening killed is murder of a kind, criminal like any disease, and like disease a thorough-going crime. If Time, so fleeting, must like humans die, let it be filled with good food and good talk, and then embalmed in the perfumes of conviviality.

    Though there were more than a few empty seats in the Walter Kerr Theatre, most of the ticketholders had chosen to brave the storm and were clearly in a mood to be wooed. After the last curtain call, Ron Eldred, who recently replaced Brían F. O’Byrne as Father Flynn, the priest suspected of molesting a child in his care, stepped forward to the rim of the stage. “We’re all really glad you came out today!” he told us, smiling broadly.

    On the way home I stopped at the corner deli to pick up some paper towels. I stood in line at the counter behind a young man and his son. “How can you not like snow on a day like this?” the man said to me. Then I went home to my nice warm apartment, stripped off my wet socks, heated up a plate of leftovers, and settled myself on the couch to watch a little early-evening TV, reveling in the simple pleasure of venturing forth into a blizzard and coming back alive.

    posted by terryteachout @ 02/13/2006 11:58 am | Permanent link
    TT: Faces in the crowd

    I spent the second night of the Blizzard of ’06 watching two black-and-white movies. The first, On Dangerous Ground, is one of Nicholas Ray’s very best films, and the only film noir to have been scored by Bernard Herrmann (it has yet to turn up on DVD, alas, but the original soundtrack is available on CD). The second, Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire, is a screwball comedy that contains more familiar faces per foot than any other film I know. Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett in their pre-Double Indemnity days, it stars Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, features the young Dana Andrews and Dan Duryea in supporting roles, and contains a nightclub scene in which Gene Krupa’s big band can be seen playing “Drum Boogie” with Roy Eldridge seated proudly in the trumpet section. As if that weren’t glory enough, the cast also includes such celebrated character actors as S.Z. “Cuddles” Zakall, the glutinous-voiced Richard Haydn, Leonid Kinskey (he’s the bartender in Casablanca), Charles Lane (who played Homer Bedloe in Petticoat Junction and recently turned 101), Henry Travers (now best remembered as Clarence, the wingless angel of It’s a Wonderful Life), and Mary Field, everybody’s favorite cinematic spinster, who made more movies than I can count.

    To top it all off in the highest possible style, the immortal Elisha Cook, Jr., has a walk-on as a waiter. You probably won’t know his name unless you have your film trivia down pat, but the chances are very, very good that you’ll recognize his face, for Cook, who died in 1995, made his first film in 1930 and his last TV episode in 1988, in between which he played small but splendidly vivid parts in such movies as The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Shane, The Killing, One-Eyed Jacks, and Rosemary’s Baby.

    I was going to pay tribute to Cook's decidedly weird on-screen persona, but it seems that David Thomson beat me to it:

    There are big stars in the movies who pass by, leaving us uninterested. And there are supporting actors whose faces will stop you dead as you flip through an album history. Who really wants to know more about Robert Taylor, say? But who wouldn’t want to read a good biography of Elisha Cook Jr.? He was small, scrawny; he was losing his hair, and he had a high-pitched voice; he had eyes screwed into his head with all the desperate resolve of wanting to be taken seriously….Put him in a bad picture, and he made it watchable for ten minutes. Put him in something good and he was a metaphor for glue, or the medium itself. He could make you trust a film.

    You could do a whole lot worse than that, posterity-wise.

    I don’t much feel like arguing about whether old movies are better than new ones—it’s a meaningless exercise—but I do think that one of the best things about studio-system Hollywood movies was the omnipresence of such gloriously characterful supporting actors as the ones seen in Ball of Fire. A few journeymen of genius managed to make their mark in the Sixties—Strother Martin and John Vernon come immediately to mind—and the breed is not quite extinct today, as any paid-up member of the M. Emmet and J.T. Walsh fan clubs can tell you. But the old studios specialized in making resourceful use of these scene-stealing wizards, and it was their idiosyncratic presence that added a special richness of texture to the casts of the movies I’m most inclined to watch when there’s two feet of snow on the ground and I feel like staying home and keeping myself company.

    I bless their memory!

    posted by terryteachout @ 02/13/2006 11:57 am | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “A fresh performance of a 'classic' is only like a new edition of an established masterpiece of literature. And the literary critics do not have to review new editions at any length; they merely publish a paragraph drawing attention to the blue buckram, the gilt-edges, and the bold lettering. They are not expected to sit up late on a chilly night writing a column about nothing new at all. It is a pleasant task sometimes to do this writing about nothing new; it is a challenge to ingenuity, a sort of Chardin problem of setting whites in the foreground against whites in a background that is not far back enough; but the task and the pleasure need not be carried too far—certainly not beyond the extent of a column, with the midnight hour at hand, and the temperature falling, and a distance to cover before the weary scribe gets to his pillow, resigned to the thought that whatever he has written will not be read, ever again, after twelve o'clock the next day, but will go down slowly and unobserved into the general dust."

    Neville Cardus, review of a concert by Sir Thomas Beecham and the Hallé Orchestra (Manchester Guardian, Oct. 20, 1938, courtesy of Richard Zuelch)

    posted by terryteachout @ 02/13/2006 11:56 am | Permanent link


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Terry lives in Manhattan. He's the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the music critic of Commentary, but he writes about... More

This is a blog about the arts in New York City and elsewhere, a diary of Terry's life as a working critic, with additional remarks and reflections by Laura Demanski (otherwise known as Our Girl in Chicago), who is also, among other things, a critic. It’s about all the arts, not just one or two... More

Terry's latest book is All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine... More



(syndicate this AJblog)


A list of things we've liked (subject to unexpected and wildly capricious updating).

To purchase or investigate, click on the link.

  • DVD: Metropolitan. Whit Stillman’s 1990 film debut, now on DVD (at last!) in a full-featured Criterion Collection version complete with outtakes, deleted scenes, and commentaries by Stillman, Luc Sante, and cast members Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols, who play the priggish preppies who take an insufficiently monied Upper West Sider under their wing and introduce him to the mysterious world of the urban haute bourgeoisie. The quintessential early-Nineties indie flick, still perfect sixteen years later (TT).

  • BOOK: G. Edmund White, Oliver Wendell Holmes (Oxford, $17.95, out Feb. 28). A pellucid brief life of the legendary Supreme Court justice who read Proust (and Nero Wolfe), knew (and disliked) Theodore Roosevelt and Henry James, was shot three times in the Civil War, sat on the bench until he turned ninety, and wrote like a writer, not a lawyer. The best first book for anyone who wants to know why Justice Holmes still matters (TT).

  • CD: Rosanne Cash, Black Cadillac (Capitol). Achingly sorrowful musical reflections on the deaths of two parents and a step-parent—two of whom just happened to be famous. If you’ve seen Walk the Line (and you should), Black Cadillac will have special resonance, but Johnny Cash’s greatly gifted daughter long ago moved beyond the compass of country music to carve out a spot for herself as one of our best singer-songwriters, regardless of genre. This is her strongest album yet (TT).

  • BOOK: Brian Priestley, Chasin’ the Bird: The Life and Legacy of Charlie Parker (Oxford, $28). A readable, musically aware short treatment of one of the saddest and most significant lives in the history of jazz. Until a full-scale primary-source biography of the self-destructive saxophonist is finally written, this is a good place to start (TT).

  • CD: Sweeney Todd (Nonesuch, two CDs). The original-cast album of John Doyle’s current Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece, in which the instrument-playing cast members double as the onstage orchestra. Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone are formidable, and Sarah Travis’ ingenious chamber-orchestra reorchestration of Sondheim’s score is surprisingly effective, though by no means a substitute for Jonathan Tunick’s 1979 full-orchestra version, which remains available on CD. That one’s better, but this one is far more than a mere souvenir (TT).
  • More on the Top Five


“The Beatles were the first rock-and-roll musicians to be written about as musicians. Elvis Presley, for instance, had attracted vast amounts of attention from the press, but for the most part he was treated as a mass-culture phenomenon rather than as an artist, and so were the other rock musicians of the 50’s and early 60’s (and the swing-era band-leaders and vocalists who came before them). Not so the Beatles…” More


“A wise old cynic once observed that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. Had he lived three centuries later, La Rochefoucauld might have added that biopics are the tribute Hollywood pays to real art. Anyone who chooses to make a movie about a great artist, be it good or bad, is making an implicit declaration of faith in the enduring significance of Western culture. Hence it says something of interest about the state of American culture that pictures like Lust for Life and The Agony and the Ecstasy, in which Charlton Heston played Michelangelo, have become so rare in recent years…” More

"The e-book is back. So are the technophobes who swear it'll never catch on. They were right last time, and they might be right this time, too. Sooner or later, though, they'll be wrong—and when they are, your life will change..." More

“You don’t pour years of your life into writing a biography unless you feel an initial bond of sympathy with the subject, and, though many a biographer has grown disillusioned along the way, it’s obvious from reading Mencken: The American Iconoclast that Rodgers still admires and, just as important, likes the man about whom she has written. But how closely does that man resemble the real H.L. Mencken? Have Rodgers’s sympathies led her to smooth his rough edges, or downplay less palatable aspects of Mencken’s work that might not sit well alongside her frank admiration? The answer, I suspect, will depend on how much you yourself like Mencken…” More


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"Terry Teachout, author of 'All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine,' 'A Terry Teachout Reader' and 'The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken,' started writing 'Second City,' a monthly column about the arts in New York, in the fall of 1999. In September, after six years and 64 columns, he filed his final report for The Post. 'I can't even begin to tell you how much I'll miss Second City,' he says. 'Not only was it a pleasure and a privilege to report to the readers of one great city about the artistic doings of another, but I learned to love Washington along the way.'...

"It's profoundly unsettling for a Manhattanite to be following the news these days. I've found it all but impossible to tear myself away from the televised scenes of mounting chaos in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast, though I did take a quick look the other day at the first 'Second City' column I filed after 9/11. It started like this: 'We're all right, thanks. It took a week or two for us to pull ourselves together, but New Yorkers have finally started to emerge from their holes, looking for all that art offers in times of trial: inspiration, diversion, catharsis, escape.' It will take a lot longer for the victims of Hurricane Katrina to reconstitute their lives, and longer still, I fear, for them to regain access to the solace of art..." More

“Respighi is known in this country for 'The Fountains of Rome', 'The Pines of Rome' and not much else, but in Italy he's rightly admired as a witty, wonderfully lyrical composer. 'La Bella Dormente' is all that and more, and Basil Twist's magical staging commingles singers, puppets and puppeteers to tell the familiar tale (at the end they all dance together, in a breathtaking piece of theatrical wizardry). The puppets were bewitchingly characterful, the singers first-rate. How sad to think that this show received only a half-dozen performances! It belongs in an off-Broadway theater, where it would surely run until the end of time…” More

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