Friday, August 26, 2011

Walking in Space

Clearly, there are different ways to measure the passing of time. We count our birthdays. We keep track of family yahrtzeits. We celebrate the anniversaries of our marriages. It seems to me that a surprising number of people can say exactly how many years ago they finished high school or college without having to pause even briefly to figure it out. Mostly, these experiences involve looking out at the world and noting the degree to which things have changed since we were born, since we got married, since it was only twenty (and not thirty or forty) years ago that we finished college, etc.. And yet we ourselves, the people actually looking out at the changing world, generally feel that deep inside we are still who we always were, that—for all the many ways in which the world all around really has changed dramatically since some specific year in the past—our inner selves have somehow remained intact and essentially unchanged by the passage of time. On the other hand, I have now had the strangest experience of revisiting—and on three separate occasions, the most recent of them this last Wednesday night—scenes from long ago in which the movement forward was precisely in my own mind and not at all evident in what I was looking out at. Indeed, what I was looking at was not only unchanged but remarkably so! So if what I was looking at was unchanged and I myself am, as are we all, unchanged…so why was the experience unsettling? You’d think just the opposite would be the case! I’m being a bit obscure, I know—even I myself wouldn’t know what any of that meant if it hadn’t happened to me personally—so let me try to explain. Like so many New York stories, it begins on Broadway.

A few years ago, I wrote to you about my experience seeing the revival of Equus on Broadway starring Richard Griffiths and Daniel Radcliffe. It was an unexpectedly interesting evening at the theater, one I only had because Joan wanted to see the show but which I ended up enjoying immensely. I had seen the play before. In fact, I saw it on Broadway when it opened in 1974 starring Anthony Hopkins and Peter Firth, and I liked it very much then too. But what I had failed to anticipate, and which really threw me for a loop, was the way I found myself relating to the play and specifically to its protagonists this time ‘round: when the show opened in 1974, I was just a little older than the Peter Firth-Daniel Radcliffe character, a young man in his early twenties trying to find his place in the world. Then, thirty-four years later, I was suddenly (suddenly!) the age of the Anthony Hopkins-Richard Griffiths character, the psychiatrist helping the young man grow past his issues into maturity. So if the whole point of theater is to allow the playwright to create a context in which audience members can deepen their personal self-awareness through the experience of peering into the playwright’s mirror and seeing themselves reflected in the personalities portrayed on the stage, you can understand just how disorienting this felt: my life’s trajectory in the thirty-four years between the original production and the revival took me from being a college student then to the rabbi I am now, from Firth to Hopkins, from Radcliffe to Griffiths, from seeing myself reflected (and not all that flatteringly) in the adolescent on stage attempting to wrestle with his demons to seeing myself reflected (also not especially flatteringly) in the portrait of the deeply unhappy doctor wrestling with his own related, but not identical, set of analogous inner demons. The play was about them, but somehow it ended up also being about me. I was partially enthralled, partially horrified, partially fascinated. Actually, I was entirely fascinated by the notion of thinking of my life as a journey from being the boy to being the shrink in the same play…and also by my realization that sometimes the viewer can be as much a part of good theater as the viewed. It was, as I wrote to you then, an unsettling experience.

And now it’s happened to me again. Twice. In the same week. (It’s been a very good week for theater going at the Cohens’.)

We started off seeing the revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying starring Daniel Radcliffe—again!—and John Larroquette. I wasn’t quite old enough to see the original show on Broadway, which opened in 1961 and ran until 1965. But I do remember seeing the movie when I was in high school—it came out in the course of my sophomore year at Forest Hills High—and feeling at least semi-identified with the Robert Morse character, the up-and-coming young man who starts as a window washer and climbs his way up to becoming the chairman of the board of a huge company (albeit one in which no one seems ever to have any actual work to do, somewhat in the manner of the television show, The Office). He was young, eager, and entirely self-confident. I was at least young and eager. The old guy—played by Rudy Valle in the movie, recreating his Broadway role—was ancient and a bit of a doofus. I didn’t think of myself as either of those things! And although I still don’t actually—think of myself as either of those things, I mean—How to Succeed is basically the jokey, sing-along version of the same story as Equus, only without the creepiness and everybody stays dressed: an older man takes under his wing a younger man and brings him from nowhere to somewhere, from immaturity to adulthood, from clueless to savvy. And again I found myself in that same time-space-theater thing. When I first saw the show I was that young guy wondering how to find a way forward in life, not exactly a window cleaner but the academic version of the Robert Morse/Daniel Radcliffe character: somehow who wants a place in the world and has no specific idea how to go about getting it. And now, forty-odd years later, I’m the Rudy Valle/John Larroquette guy wondering how I can possibly have colleagues in the rabbinate who were born after I myself was ordained.

And then, Wednesday night, I went to see Hair. It’s not exactly a revival of the 2009 Broadway revival, just a visit by the national touring company spawned by that revival breezing through New York for a few weeks. It was clearly not a “real” Broadway cast on the stage. But it was a very odd experience for me to be there nonetheless, analogous although not precisely the same as the other two I’ve been writing about.

I’ve seen Hair three times in my lifetime and I have yet to pay for a ticket. The first time was in 1967 when I made the indescribably ghastly error of agreeing to go to see the show with my parents. Not a good plan! The only real question in retrospect—whether they were more uncomfortable sitting there with the fourteen-year-old me or whether I was more miserable sitting next to them—can no longer be answered other than by conjecture. Probably it was a tie. What can I have been thinking? What can they have been thinking? It was, to say the very least, as weird an experience as any teenager in 1967 could have had, something along the lines of running into your dad at the Fillmore.

The next time I saw Hair was at Herricks High School. It was, by all measures, a spectacularly inappropriate choice for a high school production. Yet it was done with humor and very skillfully, and I found myself enjoying it immensely. To say I had a better time sitting next to Joan in 2006 than I did next to my father in 1967 is really to say the very least. The show itself, though, stuck me this time ‘round as very strange indeed. Purporting to be all about love and the eradication of traditional prejudice, the show features only black people as its generic minority group. Weirdly, given the make-up of the actual hippy movement in the 60’s, the show features no Jewish characters at all, nor is there any reference, even in passing, to anything Jewish: not a Yiddish word, not a joke about overbearing Jewish parents, not anything at all. The show’s sole reference to gay people consists of the one obviously gay character insisting to the tribe that he isn’t a gay person at all, just someone with some sort of heterosexually-explicable crush on Mick Jagger. (So much for “the mind’s true liberation, Aquarius!”) Nor is it clear why, for a musical set in lower Manhattan, there are no Hispanics in evidence. Even the women in the show, for all they purport to be models of radical liberality, are there basically to be in the thrall of the men they’re, to use the show’s own word, “stuck on.” (Honestly, when the young women who has fallen in love with Frank Mills, a man she met once for a few minutes in front of the Waverly, sings her heart out about her feelings for him, it’s played entirely straight, as though it were entirely normal for a woman to self-define in terms of a crush on someone she met once briefly and will never see again.) Still, for all its weirdness, I liked the show. The kids at Herricks, costumed out of the trunks in their own parents’ attics (it seemed), did a great job.

And then I saw the show again Wednesday night, this time sitting not next to my dad but next to my son Emil, the younger of my two sons. As did my dad before him, he bought the tickets. (So of the three times I saw the show, the only time I actually had to pay was for the Herricks High School production!) And there I was…on that weird trajectory again—somehow having moved effortlessly from being fourteen squirming (a lot) in my seat at the Biltmore (now the Samuel J. Friedman Theater) next to my father to being fifty-eight and squirming (less) in my seat at the St. James next to my son. The show is much the same. It wasn’t the same theater, but that hardly mattered. The music, the costuming, the plot (thin as a reed but vaguely present to tie the musical numbers together), the whole 60’s thing—it was all as it’s always been. Only I changed…and yet, as I wrote above with regard to Equus and How to Succeed, I haven’t really changed at all. The inner self, the sense of personhood, of individual-as-psyche rather than individual-as-body—in that sense it’s still me, still as I was, still interiorly who I was then and who, I suppose, I always will be. It was, to say the least, a strange experience.

In the second act of Hair, there’s a song featuring a line about finding the beauty of life by walking in space with eyes wide open. In context, the line is about how great it is to take drugs. (This was, as noted, an exceptionally poor choice for Herricks!) But for me the other night, I actually felt that I was walking in space as yet again the older me met the younger me in the context of a Broadway show that I had thought was far in the past, but which turned out to be ongoing and unchanging, only with new people playing the ongoing and unchanging roles. Just like in my life!

When Oscar Wilde wrote in 1883 that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life,” he was writing about something else entirely. But his insight hits the mark here too, a truth I’ve been discovering lately as I notice art—in this case, the theater—becoming the context again and again in which the strictures of temporal existence fall away and the various versions of myself can somehow spend an evening together liberated from the burden of impossibility.

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