With a unique combination of spare language and potent repetition, Beckett drives home the bitter realization of life's harrowing limitations. In the first piece, Not I, all we see is the lower half of Marian Seldes' face, her expressive mouth describing her miserable life, occasionally laughing at the very thought of a merciful God. In A Piece of Monologue, Brian Murray is like a drowning man going down for the third time, remarking that, even in the moment of his birth, he was on his way toward death. The third piece is more of the same.
The second act reveals an altogether more playful playwright in Edward Albee. His one act work Let Me Count the Ways is less about death than it is about the changing nature of love as we move from youth toward -- well, death. But there is nothing mordant about Albee's attitude. He takes the flowering emotion of love and throws it back at us as one large, dark joke. At one point Brian Murray recalls waking up with his wife that morning in a large bed, but his spouse (Marian Seldes) tells him they have twin beds. "When did that happen?" he demands, unable to recall when this change could have taken place. The piece is full of short takes and blackouts. Unlike the Beckett playlets, the pace is swift, the tone is light, and the intellectual content is ever present but never overbearing.
The larger part of the audience, we suspect, has not come to see either Beckett or Albee but, rather, to see Murray and Seldes. On that score, they will not be disappointed. These two theatrical treasures bring out the best in each other. They serve Beckett better than Beckett serves them, but Albee offers them a proscenium playground where they can swing on the ropes of the playwright's language, climb on the jungle jim of his plot structure, and romp in the ever-shifting sandbox of his imagination.
Golda's Balcony opens at the Helen Hayes Theatre on October 15 but it is already a hit. In an interview with the show's lead producer, David Fishelson of the Manhattan Ensemble Theater (where the production opened Off-Broadway last season), we learned that the advance ticket sales are already approaching $1.8 million. "Right now," said the youthful Fishelson, "we're selling tickets through February 1. After the reviews come out [the play and its star, Tovah Feldshuh received nothing but raves during its Off-Broadway run], we will probably start selling tickets through July 4. The big surprise is that we're not doing it just with group sales; right now it's more or less the industry proportion of one-third group sales and two-thirds individual sales."
This is the second play in the MET's short history to move from its intimate, 140 seat SoHo home. The first was Hank Williams: Lost Highway, which transferred to the new, expansive Little Shubert. Golda's Balcony, however, is the first MET show to move to Broadway. "Maybe the greatest dividend," said Fishelson, "is that if we want to attract big talent and their agents, they will look more kindly at us with this kind of track record." He added, "We're both the lead producer and the advertising agency for the play. That may be a first -- being in charge of the production and the advertising."
It seemed to us that transferring a one-person show to Broadway had its perils. Certainly the size of the Broadway house had to be a worry. "We were looking at the smaller houses," the soft-spoken Fishelson noted. "We're extremely pleased it's this one. We're in the middle of it all on 44th Street and it's the perfect house for the show. The designers all love it." And he had not the slightest concern about his three-time Tony nominated star: "Tovah fills the space," Fishelson said with a smile. "That was no stretch."
We were talking in the Helen Hayes as the audience was streaming in for the Sunday matinee. Fishelson looked around at the sold out house and told us, "Personally, it's a big thrill for me to launch the show on Broadway. Every time I see it, it brings tears to my eyes. I had one demand regarding the move: The play had to have the same impact as it did in SoHo." Judging by the standing ovation Golda's Balcony received at the end of the matinee we attended and by the four curtain calls that Tovah Feldshuh took, that demand was surely met.
When he strides up to the piano at the Oak Room, young jazzer Jamie Cullum looks like a Bar Mitzvah boy come to play with the grown-ups. Before he's finished performing his first number, however, your shock at this English phenom's almost childlike appearance will yield to sheer admiration for his artistry.
There have been so many young, exceedingly hyped performers of late -- particularly in the jazz world -- that one comes to see yet another baby-faced wunderkind with a wary eye and ear. But as Cullum's set continued, our suspicions melted away in recognition of the performer's authentic style. This young man lives the music and, with help from his band, expresses it playfully and joyfully. When he claps at the end of his trumpet player's solo, he doesn't do it to prompt us to clap; it's just that he really likes what the trumpet player is doing.
Cullum's voice is only adequate. When it comes to hitting notes -- well, he's close enough for jazz. Nor is he a virtuoso pianist; his riffs are short and his phrasing is clipped. Nonetheless, he sings with feeling and plays with style. Cullum uses his piano in much the way that the American Plains Indians used the buffalo: None of it's wasted. He drums on top of the piano and plucks strings inside of it, getting as many sounds from the instrument as possible. It's fun to watch and exciting to hear. Also, Cullum varies his musical styles, rarely approaching two songs in the same way. He moves easily and comfortably from uptempo Latin beats to pop and then to swing and jazz. Collum plays through this week at the Oak Room and will be back in New York early next year at Joe's Pub. This guy's a keeper.
On the other end of the age spectrum, the 84-year-old lyricist Fran Landesman was every bit as hip as Jamie Cullum in her weekend shows at Joe's Pub. Living in England for the last 40 years, she is best known for writing the lyrics to such jazz classics as "Spring Can Really Hang You Up," "The Ballad of the Sad Young Man," and "Small Day Tomorrow."
Except that Landesman required reading glasses, her age was scarcely apparent in her show. Feisty and funny, she read poems and sang songs that often dealt with very frankly with sex and drugs. At one point, she read: "I've only learned to darn socks, write some jazzy lyrics, and suck cocks." After the laughter died down, she said, "I sent this to Elaine Stritch who wrote back, "Do you really know how to darn socks?"
Landesman is not a good singer -- probably not even in the shower -- but she talk-sings her lyrics just fine and reads her poems with the appealing honesty of a straight shooter. She also had some help in this show: Jazz writer-pianist-singer Bob Dorough performed some tunes that he and Landesman wrote together back in the day, including "Marilyn, Queen of Lies" and the stunning, previously mentioned "Small Day Tomorrow." Dorough bites into a song like a lamb chop, tearing the meat of the lyric right off the musical bone. Then the great Jackie Cain (of Jackie & Roy) brought the bright sheen of class to the Joe's Pub stage, singing a wistful jazz number that her late husband wrote with Landesman, "Through the Windows of Cars." Cain originally introduced "Spring Can Really Hang You Up," and she performed it at Joe's. Wearing a stunning Rudi Gernriech ensemble that was vintage 1960's, Jackie looked and sounded great.
How well regarded is Fran Landesman? Well, at a party for her at Angus McIndoe's, Stephen Sondheim sat down in a corner with the woman and had an animated conclave with her for the better part of half-an-hour. We don't know what they said, but the talent that Sondheim so obviously admires was very much on display at Joe's Pub.