Acting It Shoulda Been You Living on Love Plays Renee Fleming Theatre theatre criticism Writing

An Alternative to the New York Times

Renee Fleming in Living on Love
Renee Fleming in Living on Love

For sheer missing the point, today’s review of Living on Love in The New York Times leads the field.

The point is: it’s Renée Fleming!

The other point is: it’s a farce …

While one cannot fault from a technical point of view some of what is said in the columns of The New York Times’s theatre pages, one could wish that the historical fact-checking was saved for a Master’s Thesis.

One could wish too, for more simple pleasure taken in the act of going to the theatre. More willingness to laugh. A little less requirement that plays offered to the chubby-fingered Infanta of critical taste conform quite so strictly to a Malvolio personal world-view.

I offer here a different take:

In another delicious sweetmeat that is this Broadway season’s theme of frivolous confectionary, Renée Fleming, the great opera diva, is letting her hair down to great effect.

Joe Di Pietro’s update on Garson Kanin’s unfinished play Peccadillo, renamed here Living on Love, plays on farcical tradition going back to Moliere.

Whatever gaps there may be in Ms. Fleming’s acting technique are more than compensated by her ability to time a laugh, and when she sings a fragment of classic opera a gossamer enchantment holds the audience suspended — how could it not? Ms. Fleming’s vocal achievement, experienced here playfully out of context, gives us a teasing insight into the limits of what is possible in the human voice.

Generously supported by a cast of stage veterans, Ms. Fleming’s unique visitation from the refined world of opera, and the fact that she is not a Broadway actress — nor indeed to make the play work should she be — means that the best joke of the evening is the one that transcends the script. Simply put: this is a great star of one genre having a holiday in another.

*       *       *

In Peter Brook’s influential book on theatre, The Empty Space, he tells a story about a show his company put up at their theatre in Paris that received damning reviews. The show was a true flop and they played to almost empty houses. The public stayed away in droves.

An empty theatre
An empty theatre

The company announced three free performances. Such was the lure of free tickets that the police were called in to manage the crowds The houses were packed.

At the end of the third show, the directress of the theatre came onto the stage and addressed the audience. “Is there anyone here,” she asked, “who could not afford the price of a ticket?”

One person put his hand up.

“And the rest of you, why did you have to wait to be let in for free?”

“It had a bad Press!”

A pause, while the directress held for silence. Then she asked another question.

“Do you believe what you read in the Press?”

*      *      *

When the RSC premiered its extraordinary version of Nicholas Nickleby, a show that played for years and toured the world, British critic Sir Bernard Levin panned it. Such was the public response that he returned to view the show a second time, and had the humilty to revise his initial assessment in print.

*      *      *

These days influence in public opinion-making is shifting from mainstream media to the blogosphere, to twitter and so forth. The positive in these changes is the lessening of influence of the mightier media organs. In my native London, influential theatre criticism is spread across half a dozen newspapers, but here in New York The Times still holds undisputed sway.

I reference another recent baffling – let me say that again – BAFFLING review in The Times of that delicious soufflé currently running on Broadway It Shoulda Been You. This show is an exquisitely layered riff on wedding forms. Anyone who’s ever been involved in a wedding will recognize how even the best intended of them can descend into mayhem.

Cast of It Shoulda Been You
Cast of It Shoulda Been You

Punning on mad mothers, frantic fathers, brides beset and a semi-prescient wedding planner holding it all together, punctuated by fabulous show stopping numbers, witty dancing, a show with a tiered wedding-cake construction, with piquant pace, it’s delicious to the last twist.

*      *      *

It is a truism held amongst actors that many, perhaps most, critics are practitioners manqué. The occupational hazard of being a critic is that one will come to despise that which one is paid to critique.

If you are in New York, do see these faintly-praised-in-the-Times shows if you can. And feel free to tell me which of us, Mr. Brantley with his readership of millions, or C. McPhillamy niche blogger, comes closer to pleasure in his assessment.

Sir Toby had it right: “Art any more than a steward? Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Acting Plays Writing

In My Craft …

Whenever I attend an award ceremony, and let me tell you the frequency is running at once a year since this time last year, I think of the following poem:

It works best if you can image a rich, insistent Welsh baritone. Richard Burton maybe, Sir Harry Secombe perhaps …

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art

Or maybe the author himself, Dylan Thomas.

Dylan Thomas

And he would have known all about it, having finally moved off the mortal coil aged 39 after taking in an immoderate number of whiskeys down at The White Horse Tavern in New York City.

Sort of thing Rylance might recite when called to the podium … maybe?