June 17, 2015
HEY, THIS PLACE IS REALLY NEAT!: Brothers Zach (Nick Robinson, left) and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins) are enjoying their ride around the dinosaur theme park in a “geo-sphere” made of bullet proof glass surrounded by harmless dinosuars until they encounter the hybrid dinosaur that was created by the park’s scientists. The monster dinosaur goes out of control and starts attacking everyone in sight, causing mayhem in the park.(Photo by Chuck Zlotnick-© 2015, Universal Pictures)

HEY, THIS PLACE IS REALLY NEAT!: Brothers Zach (Nick Robinson, left) and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins) are enjoying their ride around the dinosaur theme park in a “geo-sphere” made of bullet proof glass surrounded by harmless dinosuars until they encounter the hybrid dinosaur that was created by the park’s scientists. The monster dinosaur goes out of control and starts attacking everyone in sight, causing mayhem in the park. (Photo by Chuck Zlotnick-© 2015, Universal Pictures)

How do you revive an expiring film series that fell out of favor 12 years ago after audiences became jaded with visual effects that they no longer found spellbinding? In the case of Jurassic World, the writers created a sequel that is laced with allusions to earlier episodes and that even point out how dinosaurs don’t capture people’s imaginations to the degree that they once used to.

This is the fourth film in the science fiction series that is based on novels by the late Michael Crichton. Jurassics 1 and 2 were directed by Steven Spielberg and adapted from Crichton’s bestsellers (Jurassic Park and The Lost World). Jurassic 4’s creative team includes director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed) and four writers who wrote a screenplay that remains faithful to the feeling of the source material.

The story is about two siblings — Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins) — whose Christmas vacation goes bad off the coast of Costa Rica. As the film unfolds, the pair bid their parents a fond farewell, but not before their prophetic mother (Judy Greer) gives them an ominous piece of parental advice — “Remember, if something chases you, run!”

They are going to Isla Nublar, the same tropical resort where, in Jurassic 1, raptors ran amok during the christening of a dinosaur populated amusement park. The place has been renamed “Jurassic World” and is set to reopen under a greedy and inept management team.

Karen Mitchell isn’t all that worried about her sons’ welfare since she is sure that they’ll be under the watchful eye of her sister (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is the theme park’s operations manager. However, upon their arrival, instead of spending time with her nephews — whom she hasn’t seen in seven years — Claire issues them a VIP all-access pass and tells them to have a good time.

They roam around the park in a gyro-sphere made of bulletproof glass and run into the escaped Indominus Rex, a prehistoric hybrid dinosaur that was bred in a test tube. Unfortunately, no one in a position of authority — that is (BD Wong), who created the hybrid; the war profiteer (Vincent D’Onofrio), who has secret plans to sell it to the military; and Jurassic World’s owner (Irrfan Khan) — wants to destroy the creature until it finally goes on a rampage and starts attacking the park’s visitors.

As a result, thousands of tourists run for their lives, and Aunt Claire searches for her nephews with the help of her boyfriend (Chris Pratt). Overall, the movie is a riveting roller coaster ride with eye-popping effects and a satisfying resolution.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for peril and intense violence. Running time: 124 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

June 10, 2015

book revSaul Bellow, who was born 100 years ago today in a suburb of Montreal, began his breakthrough novel The Adventures of Augie March in Paris in 1948 and finished it four years later in Princeton, in an office at Firestone Library.

Besides winning the National Book Award, Augie March has been named by Time and the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels in the English language. Writing in 1995, Martin Amis declares it “The Great American Novel” and Salman Rushdie seems to agree (“If there’s a candidate … this is it”). In the context of the GAM, Christopher Hitchens compares Augie March to The Great Gatsby, another perennial candidate, observing that its great advantage “lies in its scope and its optimism” as “the first time in American literature that an immigrant would act and think like a rightful Discoverer, or a pioneer.”

On those terms, Bellow’s personal history as an infant illegally smuggled over the border from Canada clearly qualifies him. He stakes his claim in one of the great American opening sentences, a legend in itself:

“I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”

No Turning Back

I’ve gone at Augie March numerous times over the years in one edition or another, including the Popular Library Giant with the sexy cover (“Ribald  … Vital … Virile”), but I never got much beyond that powerful opening paragraph; first to knock, first admitted, and each time I turn back. Why? I suppose it’s a combination of too much prose and too little plot. Even now, I might not have completed this 536-page expedition but for my determination to meet the 100th birthday deadline.

Big, complicated, densely written novels like Augie March offer a challenge comparable to a long trek in the mountains, with the goal of a literary Shangri-La shining somewhere on the other side of a No Man’s Land of devious challenges, the prose equivalent of deadly crevasses and threadbare rope-bridges that may scare you into turning back. And even if you slog it out and get there you may not last, if, say, things begin to go south after the golden arrival, the glow fades with a spell of lousy weather, a Himalayan air-inversion, the potential for a plague or an avalanche, until you panic and take the first helicopter out, only to find that right after you left an unheralded, unimaginable event cast everyone and everything in Shakespearean radiance, making poetry of the air and opening all the closed doors of the mystic city for the first time in a century.

With Augie March — and the word “adventure” in the title is more than a picaresque convention, it’s what happens to you the reader — the experience is a lot more subtle than that high-altitude analogy. Around about page 420, after a long sequence in Mexico vicariously training an eagle and losing a lover, you may make the mistake of thinking that Bellow is folding up his tent, winding things down, ready to cruise through the last 100 pages toward the dreaded Curse of the Denouement. Far from it — a torpedo blows your doubts at the moon as the curtain rises on a mad and masterful scene wherein two Chicagoans adrift in a lifeboat have an endgame conversation somewhere to the far side of Strindberg, Beckett, and Mary Shelley — “You didn’t create life!” “In all humility, that’s exactly what I did. Six universities have thrown me out for claiming it.”

A Sea of Prose

In his New Yorker review of Zachary Leader’s new biography The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune (Knopf), Louis Menand suggests that the first 200 pages of Augie March contain “the best writing Bellow ever did,” which is to say “the best prose” since a quick random count suggests that only around 40 of those first 200 pages appear to contain dialogue.

Writing in Advertisements for Myself (1958), Norman Mailer states the obvious when he calls Bellow’s style “self-willed and unnatural.” It’s easy enough to find examples of what Mailer’s talking about, like: “Before vice and shortcoming, admitted in the weariness of maturity, common enough and boring to make an extended showing of, there are, or are supposed to be, silken, unconscious, nature-painted times, like the pastoral of Sicilian shepherd lovers, or lions you can chase away with stones and golden snakes who scatter from their knots into the fissures of Eryx.”

As it turns out, the long paragraph in Chapter Six containing that passage is a journey worth taking, in spite of the borderline self-parody, you go from Eden and shepherd-Sicily to “deep city vexation” and studying Greek in Bogotá to temples, pool rooms, “musical milk-dreaming innocence,” fiddle lessons, and Robinson Crusoe. On top of that, Bellow’s “unnatural” prose seems to have driven Mailer off the rails into tortured equivalents (Bellow’s “narrative disproportions are elephantiastical in their anomaly”) and nonsensical declarations (“I do not think he knows anything about people or himself”)
culminating in a dismissal of Augie March “at its worst” as “a travelogue for timid intellectuals.”

A Bloody Genius

In Princeton, where his friendship with John Berryman seems to have coincided with the composing of the extraordinary lifeboat chapter, Bellow gave the poet the finished manuscript, and according to Berryman’s wife Eileen Simpson in Poets in Their Youth, Berryman spent a weekend “immobile for hours except to light a cigarette while he trained his intelligence on The Adventures of Augie March, giving it the kind of reading every writer dreams of having.” When Berryman finished, he announced “Bellow is it!” and went off to tell the author that he was “a bloody genius.”

Removing Restraints

“My earlier books had been straight and respectable,” Bellow said in a 1991 interview. “But in Augie March I wanted to invent a new sort of American sentence. Something like a fusion of colloquialism and elegance.” In the Winter 1966 Paris Review (Art of Fiction No. 37), Bellow admitted being afraid to let himself go in The Dangling Man and The Victim. “I was timid. I still felt the incredible effrontery of announcing myself to the world (in part I mean the WASP world) as a writer and an artist. I had to touch a great many bases, demonstrate my abilities, pay my respects to formal requirements …. When I began to write Augie March. I took off many of these restraints.” In 1991, he mentioned “reckless spontaneity” as he “began to write in all places, in all postures, at all times of day and night. It rushed out of me. I was turned on like a hydrant in summer. The simile is not entirely satisfactory. Hydrants are not sexually excited. I was wildly excited.”

Celebrating Mimi

You don’t have to read far in the reviews of Leader’s biography to learn that Augie and his creator have in common a compelling weakness for women. For all that might be said on the lofty theme of immigrants, discoverers, and pioneers, the point where I bonded with the novel is when Augie goes all out, against odds, to help a female friend through a botched abortion that might have proved fatal had he not been there for her. The most appealing of all the memorable women in Augie March, Mimi is a feisty waitress in a student hash house who had been expelled from the University of Chicago “for going beyond the bounds of necking,” which became “a favorite subject for her ferocious humor.” The beauty of her relationship with Augie is that being platonic, it’s free of “formal requirements,” developing outside the norm (everyone thinks they’re lovers anyway since they share rooms in the same boarding house); at the same time their life-or-death intimacy during the crisis has a sexual tension, so passionately does Augie give himself to the cause of her salvation.

More than any other character, “hard and spirited” Mimi, “editing her words for no one,” expresses the conceptual passion in which Bellow discovered and composed the book, the letting go, the freedom from restraint, she who “led a proclaimed life, and once she got talking … held back nothing,” with her “tough beauty,” her “large mouth, speaking for a soul of wild appetite, nothing barred; she’d say anything, and had no idea what could hinder her.” The sense of excitement and excess are in her “long and narrow hips,” her large bust, and “high heels that gave a tight arch of impatience to the muscles of her calves; her step was small and pretty and her laughter violent, total, and critical.” When she slams down the phone on the man who got her pregnant “it was as a musician might shut the piano after he had finished storming chords of mightiest difficulty without a single flinch or error.”

No wonder the novel rips itself open to make room for Mimi’s crisis, Chapter 12 sprawling for almost 50 pages while previous chapters, at their longest, rarely go beyond 20. Saving Mimi, Augie follows the courage of his heart and Bellow’s art, that “reckless spontaneity,” as he sacrifices his chance to marry into a wealthy family by breaking a New Year’s Eve date with his fiance, the heiress, to take care of this hash house waitress with “her round face of tough happiness.”

A Long Time Coming

It’s time to admit that I have a tough, intelligent, “hard and spirited” Chicago woman to thank for giving me this long overdue reading assignment. In an email exchange with an old friend who has lived most of his life in Chicago and recently began rereading Augie March, I reminded him that it was his mother’s favorite book, she who one day looked a certain high school senior sternly in the eye and told him to read The Adventures of Augie March. Now, a senior again, long out of high school, he’s finally done it and wishes he could call her up and talk about her favorite book.

———

By the way, Bellow’s was not the only famous Chicago novel to have been finished in Princeton. About 50 years earlier, out on Province Line Road, Upton Sinclair was writing The Jungle. 

CUBAN LIVES: Alina Bliach’s photograph of Ardelio is one of 45 portraits of Cuban immigrants from the past 50 years on display at the Mercer County Community College Gallery from June 13 through June 24. An opening reception with Ms. Bliach, a 2006 alumna of the MCCC Photography program, will be held Saturday, June 13 from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, visit: www.mccc.edu/gallery.

CUBAN LIVES: Alina Bliach’s photograph of Ardelio is one of 45 portraits of Cuban immigrants from the past 50 years on display at the Mercer County Community College Gallery from June 13 through June 24. An opening reception with Ms. Bliach, a 2006 alumna of the MCCC Photography program, will be held Saturday, June 13 from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, visit: www.mccc.edu/gallery.

A special photography exhibition featuring Mercer County Community College (MCCC) alumna Alina Bliach (’06) opens with a reception in the Gallery at MCCC on Saturday, June 13, from 6 to 8 p.m. The exhibition will continue through June 24.

“A Voyage of Many,” includes images and stories of 45 Cuban immigrants over the past half century in their new American homeland. Each photograph is accompanied by a printed excerpt from interviews Bliach conducted. The photos and narratives tell stories of forced exile, escape, loss, hope, and triumph.

Ms. Bliach notes that many of those who came to the United States in the 1960s are now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, and most of their stories remain unrecorded. “Since the 1960s more than one million Cubans have immigrated to the United States — the children of the Peter Pan flights, the people of Camarioca, the Freedom Flights, the Mariel Boatlift, the people known as the Balceros, and the Immigration Visa Lottery winners …. Their’s are the stories of sacrifice, perseverance, and survival in their ultimate quest for freedom. These are their portraits,” she said.

Ms. Bliach’s portraits are rich in detail that connects their subjects to their Cuban heritage. “Forced to leave their homeland, their love for family, art, religion, and music is often apparent throughout their homes. Photographs of loved ones, brightly colored art and religious relics are proudly displayed …. More than decorations, these objects reveal the deep relationship between these immigrants’ cultural background and the new lives they built for themselves in America,” she said.

The photographer’s work has won numerous awards and honors: as a finalist in Best of Photography 2013; First and Second Prize honors in the Pollux Awards; Merit Awards in the Professional Photographers of America International competitions; PPA Loan Collection honor; Hasselblad Photographer of the Month; and several International Photography Honorable Mentions. Her work has been exhibited at the Borges Cultural Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina; The Room in SoHo, N.Y.; Arts Council of Princeton in Princeton; Grounds for Sculpture; Phillips Mill in New Hope, Pa.; Artworks in Trenton; and Art Along the Fence in Hoboken.

The MCCC Gallery is located on the second floor of the Communications Building on the college’s West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road. Gallery hours for “A Voyage of Many,” are Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Saturday, June 20, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

———

Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra (GPYO) wrapped up its 2014-15 season this past Saturday night with a very full concert at Richardson Auditorium. Presenting three of the ensembles within the GPYO organization, the concert both showcased the graduating senior musicians and demonstrated ensemble musical expertise.

This past year, GPYO added a choral performance element to its activities with the GPYO Choir, for singers grades seven through twelve. Conducted by Jennifer Sengin, director of choirs at East Brunswick High School, the small but very effective vocal ensemble demonstrated good tuning and choral technique in their six selections.

Ms. Sengin is known for her knowledge of diverse and multicultural music, and the six pieces she selected for the GPYO Choir began with a Zambian arrangement and ended with a bit of Broadway. Ms. Sengin taught movement to the 14 members of the choir to go with Andrew Fischer’s celebratory arrangement of Bonsa Aba. Accompanied by drum, the GPYO Choir sang with a clean blend among all the voices. In the second selection, Z. Randall Stroope’s flowing setting of Omnia Sol, the alto section of the women’s parts was particularly strong, topped by a light soprano sound. Through all these selections, it was clear that Ms. Sengin can train voices and impart style. The choir shifted gears again with the Robert Shaw/Alice Parker arrangement of the Italian Renaissance Fa un canzona, in which the irregular accents and odd meters were well handled.

GPYO has two principal orchestral ensembles under its umbrella — the Concert Orchestra and the Symphonic Orchestra. The Concert Orchestra amassed a full stage of players for three unique works. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is usually heard outdoors at this time of year, complete with fireworks, but GPYO’s Concert Orchestra made the piece work well within the confines of Richardson Auditorium. Conductor Arvin Gopal kept musical phrases crisp, with a lean string sound and clean winds. A quartet of horns was especially clean, and it was impressive how well the triangle rang in the hall from the percussion section.

Joseph Jay McIntyre’s Ghosts of Antietam captures the atmosphere of the Civil War as spirits of the great battle come to life through music. Beginning with low cello, chimes, and swirling winds, this was a dark piece, which the Concert Orchestra kept precise. McIntyre’s symphonic work incorporates Civil War tunes, passed among instrumental solos. Trumpeter Marie Petitjean provided an effective rendition of “Taps” to close the piece. The Concert Orchestra closed its portion of the evening with a sprightly rendition of Ronan Hardiman’s Music from the Lord of the Dance. This piece, also replete with familiar tunes, was well played by the orchestra, with elegant themes in the flute and brass.

GPYO’s Symphonic Orchestra, conducted by Kawika Kahalehoe, presented the winner of GPYO’s Concerto Competition in a movement from a challenging Chopin piano concerto. Seventeen-year-old Louis Petitjean has studied at some of the finest musical institutions in the country, and shares his talents with the Symphonic Orchestra as a member of the flute section. In the first movement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in e Minor, the Symphonic Orchestra presented the long dark orchestral introduction with a very clean sound, emphasizing the sinuous Romantic melodies. Chopin wrote no full symphonies, but this work was so close to a symphony one forgot that there was a piano soloist waiting to enter the musical action.

And what an astounding piano soloist he was — Louis Petitjean showed himself to be a very composed performer, taking plenty of time on entrances. Mr. Petitjean was a very strong yet agile pianist, elegantly playing fluid passages with a quick and nimble right hand. Mr. Petitjean demonstrated very strong octaves against the symphonic orchestral accompaniment.

Through the two closing works on the program — an excerpt from Holst’s The Planets and several movements from Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade — the Symphonic Orchestra brought out the bright and chipper orchestration of the pieces, as well as rich playing of the familiar “I Vow to Thee my Country” hymn of Holst’s orchestral suite. Scheherazade in particular showcased a number of the graduating seniors in the orchestra as soloists, most notably cellist Michelle Zhou, clarinetist Anthony Wang and oboist Jennifer Park, as well as exquisite solo violin playing by concertmistress Dallas Noble. The graduating musicians joined the entire ensemble in closing the evening with a solid musical performance.

NOW HOLD MY HANDS WHILE I TRY TO CONTACT QUINN’S MOTHER: Elise (Lin Shaye, center) begins a séance in an effort to help Quinn (Stefanie Scott, left) communicate with her dead mother while her father (Dermot Mulroney) looks on. When Quinn’s attempts to contact her mother  on her own stirred up a host of frightening paranormal events, Elise agreed to come out of retirement to help Quinn communicate with her mother.(Photo by Matt Kennedy)

NOW HOLD MY HANDS WHILE I TRY TO CONTACT QUINN’S MOTHER: Elise (Lin Shaye, center) begins a séance in an effort to help Quinn (Stefanie Scott, left) communicate with her dead mother while her father (Dermot Mulroney) looks on. When Quinn’s attempts to contact her mother on her own stirred up a host of frightening paranormal events, Elise agreed to come out of retirement to help Quinn communicate with her mother. (Photo by Matt Kennedy)

The good news about Insidious 3 is that you don’t have to know what happened in the first two episodes in order to follow this movie’s plotline. This prequel does not involve the Lambert family that was haunted by ghosts in the series’ previous two films.

The best news is that, despite being rated PG-13, this harrowing adventure was so scary that I screamed louder than my wife! Guaranteed to have you jumping out of your skin, Insidious 3 evokes an earlier era when horror movie filmmakers subtly sowed the seeds of suspense instead of simply splattering the screen with gruesome scenes.

The movie is Australian Leigh Whannell’s directorial debut. She wrote and acted in Insidious 1 and 2. This film features Lin Shaye (There’s Something about Mary) as Elise Rainier, the gifted psychic who can commune with the afterlife.

As the film unfolds, we find Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott) trying to hire the clairvoyant to help her contact the spirit of her late mother (Ele Keats). Elise declines the offer, explaining that she’s retired, but gives the grieving teen an ominous piece of advice, — “Don’t try to contact your mom on your own.”

Quinn returns home to the mythical town of Leland Park where she lives in an apartment with her father (Dermot Mulroney) and little brother, Alex (Tate Berney). Of course, she disregards Elise’s warning, and next thing you know paranormal activities begin; a waving apparition, here, a disembodied voice there, an unexplained crack in the ceiling, bloody footprints on the floor, and so on.

Quinn’s distracted dad does not give her much help in dealing with these phenomena, however, the boy next-door (Ashton Moio) is concerned about her welfare. Finally, the ghostly activities escalate to the point where Elise agrees to get involved and stage a séance.

Although the storyline reads like stock fright fare, trust me, Insidious 3 is an expertly edited horror movie that repeatedly shocks you when you least expect it. Again and again it makes you jump from your seat, then lulls you back into a false sense of security only to deliver another jolt.

The movie is a chilling spine-tingler that will generate lots of bloodcurdling screams.

Excellent (****). Rated  PG-13 for violence, profanity, frightening images, and mature themes. Running time: 97 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features

June 3, 2015

book rev

Responding to the deaths of John and Alicia Nash in a May 23 accident on the New Jersey Turnpike, Jennifer Connelly, the actress who won an Oscar playing Alicia in the Academy-Award-winning film version of Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind (Simon & Schuster 1998), calls the couple “an inspiration” and refers to “all that they accomplished in their lives.” Russell Crowe, who played John Nash in the film, refers to their “amazing partnership. Beautiful minds, beautiful hearts.” Both statements go straight to the spirit of the extraordinary six-decades-long relationship with a force lacking in obituaries that focused on the trials and triumphs of the husband. Having lived the roles, Connelly and Crowe were able to do justice to the couple by stressing words like inspiration, partnership, minds, and hearts.

A Hothouse Orchid

According to Nasar, the couple’s story began at MIT where the mathematics faculty included Nash, who had earned his doctorate at Princeton in 1950 with a 27-page thesis on game theory that would lead to a Nobel Prize in 1994. Alicia was a physics major hoping to become a nuclear scientist at a time when coeds at MIT “wore cocktail dresses and high heels while dissecting rats in the lab.” In that environment Alicia “glowed like a hothouse orchid …. Delicate and feminine, with pale skin and dark eyes, she exuded both innocence and glamour, a fetching shyness as well as a definite sense of self-possession, polish, and elegance” She carried herself like “an El Salvadoran princess with a sense of noblesse oblige.” It would seem that Nash never had a chance. Nor did she, as she admitted in the PBS documentary A Brilliant Madness (2002): “At the time, he was a little bit like the fair-haired boy of the math department …. And he was very nice looking.”

Princeton Junction

They were married in 1957 in Washington, D.C. By the time a son was born in 1959, Nash was undergoing the first of a series of involuntary commitments to psychiatric hospitals that would include Carrier and Trenton State, where he was hospitalized after the couple moved to Princeton in 1960. The strain of dealing with Nash’s psychosis eventually led Alicia to divorce him in 1963. Seven years later when she was living “literally across the road from the railroad station” in Princeton Junction, she offered to let Nash live with her, “moved by pity, loyalty, and the realization that no one else on earth would take him in.” Quoted by Nasar in a chapter epigraph, Nash admitted as much, “I have been sheltered here and thus avoided homelessness.” Besides contributing what he could to expenses, Nash helped his 12-year-old son Johnny with his homework, played chess, and rode the Dinky into Princeton, where he became known as “the phantom of Fine Hall” and “the mad genius of Firestone.”

Bartleby at Firestone

The man I saw day and night at the Firestone Library in the late 1970s seemed to be everywhere I looked. It would be hard to imagine a more unprepossessing person, always wearing the same yellow-brown plaid shirt, always with an almost surreal air of passive obstinacy, like a library-born version of Herman Melville’s live-in Wall Street clerk Bartleby whose answer to everything is “I would prefer not to.” Whether haunting the reference room or the card catalogue or the third floor stacks, he was somehow eternally in residence.

I had no idea who he was until I saw the photographs of Nash in A Beautiful Mind. There was the same plaid shirt, the same air of having wandered to the far side of reality, as if he were an inanimate object waiting to be moved to a position of conclusive significance on the cosmic chess board. In the womb-like recesses of Firestone’s third-floor, those cramped quarters teeming with “quaint and curious volumes,” it’s not easy to ignore the other inhabitants, and while I never exchanged greetings with the man in the plaid shirt, there were nods and looks of vague acknowledgment. The office where I worked during the day and had all to myself at night was located next to that of historian Charles Gillespie, who is quoted in Beautiful Mind to the effect that Nash “almost always headed for the third floor stacks, in a section of the library devoted to religion and philosophy,” where Gillespie “always said good morning” and “Nash was always silent.”

Last Words

In A Brilliant Madness, when Nash faces the camera, up close, he appears to have moved well away from the spookily intransigent Bartleby; he’s older, greyer, sadder and wiser, less guarded, more willing to appear vulnerable, and though he might “prefer not to,” he offers brief comments about the lost years and the years to come, admitting, that “in madness,” he saw himself “as some sort of messenger, or having a special function. Like the Muslim concept with Muhammad, the messenger of Allah.” Referring to his protracted remission, he says “I don’t really remember the chronology very well, exactly when I moved from one type of thinking to another. I began arguing with the concept of the voices. And ultimately I began rejecting them and deciding not to listen.” In other words, he preferred not to.

I can still hear an echo of Bartleby’s mantra at the end of A Brilliant Madness when Nash seems to startle himself with his thoughts about the future. “I don’t know what the future holds exactly,” he says; then, with a scarily revealing gesture, somewhere between a grimace, a shudder, and a graveyard laugh, he adds, “even if it’s not such a long future — for me.” As he goes on, putting some distance between himself and the subtle convulsion of the moment when he acknowledged in spite of himself that his might not be “a long future,” his words seem to trail off into a void, “Of course, the future in general is presumably long — unless things really go bad — or unless some miracle happens.”

Shortly before that last halting, one-on-one moment with Nash, A Brilliant Madness offers an alternate farewell in a video of the Nobel Prize ceremony when, after the presentation of the medal, he bows three times, to the front, the left and the right, holding the prize, a gesture at once formally precise and gently graceful, after which we hear the voice of fellow mathematician Princeton professor Erhan Çinlar on the soundtrack: “He shined very brightly as a young man. Then he had his illness. And he is now a very pleasant, accomplished gentleman. It feels right somehow.”

Together

They began as teacher and student, became husband and wife, then housemates, and in 2001 husband and wife again. In her last chapter, Nasar celebrates a marriage, “the most mysterious of human relationships,” summing it up (circa the late 1990s): Alicia is “strong-minded, pragmatic, and independent,” yet her “girlish infatuation has survived the disillusionments, hardships, and disappointments.” She takes her husband shopping for clothes, “frets when he travels,” spends four hours in the ER with him “when his ankle swells from a sprain.” Meanwhile he “sets his clock by her. Stubborn, reserved, self-centered, and jealous of his time (and money) as he is, Nash does nothing without consulting Alicia first, defers to her wishes, and tries to help her, whether it is by washing the dishes, straightening out a problem at the bank, or going with her to family therapy.”

At the time Nasar was writing and apparently right up to May 23, 2015, the Nashes found themselves sharing a familiar burden in the plight of their mathematically gifted schizophrenic son John Charles “Johnny” Nash, now 56, who would grow up to be treated with “the newest generation of drugs” that enabled him, “for the most part, to stay out of the hospital,” but “have not given him a life.” For his parents, it was “a constant disruption,” the way he both “drew them together and tore them apart,” generating “deep conflicts” that caused them to blame each other for his misbehavior — “when he destroys things in the house, attacks them, acts inappropriately in public.” There is the inevitable good cop/bad cop syndrome, but “they rely on each other. They agree every day on what one or the other should do. They also agree when it is time to hospitalize him,” and when it’s time to go to a pharmacy for his meds, they go together.

A House on Aiken

Watching the DVD of Ron Howard’s film version of A Beautiful Mind, I recognized the house the production staff used for the exterior of the home occupied by the Nashes when they moved to Princeton. Located on Aiken Street next to Harrison Street Park, it’s the same house my wife and I once considered renting. We’d been living around the corner on Patton Avenue with our infant son who spent many happy hours playing in the sandbox and on the swings at the park. You can see the park gate in the film and the sidewalk my son would run along, never in a straight line, always zigging and zagging, and of course now and then tripping and falling on the uneven pavement no matter how alert we were to his giddy, happy, random movements. There was no containing him, really. He was determined to pick things up, eat every berry in sight, smell every flower, pet every dog. All very normal, though looking back it’s easy to imagine that his fearless heedless way of going at the world might suggest early signs of the illness that makes us familiar with phrases like “drew them together and tore them apart,” and “good cop bad cop.”

In the end, no matter how watchful a parent or person you are, no matter how many hazards you anticipate, no matter how often you’re tempted to think the world makes sense, there’s not much you can do when things spin out of control, whether it’s a child’s mind or a taxi on the turnpike. Though she was writing some 20 years ago, Sylvia Nasar found a fitting epigraph for the Nashes and the rest of us in the lines from Wordworth’s “Intimations of Immortality,” which accompanies her dedication of A Beautiful Mind to Alicia Nash: “Another race hath been, and other palms are won./Thanks to the human heart by which we live,/Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,/To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

 

CHAIRMAKING IN THE GARDEN STATE: Morven’s latest exhibition “Of the Best Materials and Good Workmanship: 19th-Century New Jersey Chairmaking” examines the chairmaker’s craft from the 1790s to the end of the 19th century. Guest curator Joseph W. Hammond documents the work of chairmakers who once worked in virtually every corner of the Garden State, with examples of their work, period photographs, and advertisements in four rooms on the museum’s second floor. The exhibition will be on view at Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton, through October 18. For more information, call (609) 924-8144, or visit: www.morven.org.(Photo by L. Arntzenius)

CHAIRMAKING IN THE GARDEN STATE: Morven’s latest exhibition “Of the Best Materials and Good Workmanship: 19th-Century New Jersey Chairmaking” examines the chairmaker’s craft from the 1790s to the end of the 19th century. Guest curator Joseph W. Hammond documents the work of chairmakers who once worked in virtually every corner of the Garden State, with examples of their work, period photographs, and advertisements in four rooms on the museum’s second floor. The exhibition will be on view at Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton, through October 18. For more information, call (609) 924-8144, or visit: www.morven.org. (Photo by L. Arntzenius)

Where else but Princeton’s Morven Museum & Garden would you find an exhibition devoted entirely to the history of chair-making in New Jersey?

Even though the museum’s staff is currently working behind the scenes on what promises to be a landmark show this fall, they have brought in a guest curator for a small and informative exploration of the history of chair making in New Jersey that will run through the summer until mid-October.

In spite of its cumbersome title, “Of the Best Materials and Good Workmanship: 19th-Century New Jersey Chairmaking(derived from an 1828 newspaper advertisement of Morristown chair maker J. D. Humphreyville), the exhibition showcases some of the most sleek and elegant examples of the chairmaker’s craft from the 1790s to the end of the 19th century.

The show came about after the museum was contacted by a New Jersey collector who offered his chairs for display. “We saw his collection and thought it was an excellent idea; to his items, others were added,” said Morven’s Curator of Collections and Exhibitions Elizabeth Allan.

Formerly of Winterthur and now engaged in New Jersey historic projects, guest curator Joseph W. Hammond was called in to review and make selections from the private collection and to seek out appropriate additions from sources across the state. About half of the items on display come from a single private collection and the rest from multiple sources. “It’s not just about chairs but about chair-making in New Jersey, including regional characteristics,” said Mr. Hammond. “Chairmakers once worked in virtually every corner of the Garden State, from large cities and towns to small crossroad communities and 35 examples are on display here along with chair-making tools and stencils, portraits and photographs, period advertisements, and plates from sales catalogs.”

Mr. Hammond has enhanced the display with period advertisements from the early part of the 19th century for some of the hundreds of craftsmen known today through census records, business directories, account books, and research conducted by furniture students and local historians. He will discuss the exhibition during a gallery talk on September 17.

The exhibition is presented in four rooms on the museum’s second floor and comprises sections on, “The Craft of Chairmaking,” “Windsor Chairs,” “Common and Fancy Chairs,” and “Factory Made Chairs.”

The first of these introduces visitors to the process of making 19th-century chairs, including the technique and tools for traditional rush seating.

Most of the equipment and tools on display have been drawn from an important collection assembled in the late 1920s by William H. MacDonald of Trenton. Period photographs illustrate how many of the tools were used.

Check out the chairmaker’s bench, a rotating stand for weaving rush seats, color grinders used in Allentown for preparing paint, and decorative stencils from several shops in the Allentown and Englishtown areas.

Replications of several stencils on loan from the Monmouth County Historical Collection are cut from scrap paper. “It’s amazing that they have survived at all, some of them are so delicate,” said Ms. Allan as she pointed out some for crest rails, some with corner designs and one bearing a chair-maker’s name. They’d be used to apply painted designs. Beside them are some patterns that would be copied by hand.

Eight Windsor chairs made between 1790 and 1835 range in form from fan-back and bow-back to rod-back styles, some with bamboo-shaped turnings popular in the early 19th century. They were made in Trenton, Pemberton, Moorestown, Salem, and Monmouth County by Ezekiah Hewes, William Bowen, Samuel Jaques, Samuel Roberts, William McElroy, Ebenezer P. Rose, and others. Brands were often stamped on the undersides of chair seats and can be used to identify the work of specific craftsmen.

Throughout the 19th century, a wide range of common and fancy chairs were made in all parts of New Jersey and there are 15 examples of these in the exhibition. Seven of them were produced by the renowned Ware family of South Jersey, who made slat-back, rush seated chairs in the Delaware Valley tradition in Cumberland and Salem counties. Nineteen Wares over four generations engaged in chairmaking from the late 18th century to the 1940s. The techniques passed down in the family remained so similar that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to tell the work of one craftsman from another.

After the Civil War, chair production in New Jersey shifted from small shops to factories. Three of the most prominent were the Gardner Manufacturing Company of Glen Gardner, Hunterdon County; the Tunis R. Cooper chair factory in Bergenfield, Bergen County; and the Collignon Brothers in what is now River Vale, Bergen County. Twelve examples from all three factories display the special characteristics developed by each, including the Collignan Brothers’s patented folding chairs.

Highlights include the hand-painted crest rail depicting a compote of berries on a Windsor side chair made by Ebenezer P. Rose, Jr., of Trenton, ca. 1815-25, and the graceful bow-back Windsor armchair made by William McElroy of Moorestown, N.J., ca. 1795-1810.

One period photograph shows Samuel Sloan Ware (1848-1920) on the porch roof of his second floor chair shop in Alloway, New Jersey, ca. 1875, which comes from the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera at the Winterthur Library.

Another, by Edward W. Humphrey, records the interior of Dan Ware’s chair shop in Woodstown, Salem County, circa 1895.

Miniatures made between 1960 and 1985 by Ware family descendent Allen M. Loveland, Jr., of Camden, are on loan from the Salem County Historical Society,

“Of the Best Materials and Good Workmanship: 19th-Century New Jersey Chairmaking” will be on view at Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton, through October 18. Hours are Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Admission: $6, adults; $5, seniors/students; free to children 6 and under and Friends of Morven. For more information, call (609) 924-8144, or visit: www.morven.org.

And the landmark show coming up in the fall? “Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Couple of an Age,” the first large-scale exhibition to explore the vices and virtues of this prominent couple, will open November 13. For a sneak peek, visit: www.morven.org.

THANK GOD YOU WERE ABLE TO FIND ME: Ray (Dwayne Johnson, left) is embraced by his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) after he came to rescue her from atop a skyscraper in San Francisco that was on the verge of collapsing when the shift in the San Andreas fault triggered a massive earthquake that was felt all over California. (Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture-©-2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., WV Films IV LLC and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC—U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda)

THANK GOD YOU WERE ABLE TO FIND ME: Ray (Dwayne Johnson, left) is embraced by his estranged wife Emma (Carla Gugino) after he came to rescue her from atop a skyscraper in San Francisco that was on the verge of collapsing when the shift in the San Andreas fault triggered a massive earthquake that was felt all over California.
(Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture-©-2015 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., WV Films IV LLC and Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC—U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda)

If you were afraid to swim in the ocean after watching Jaws, you might be reluctant to visit San Francisco after seeing this spectacular disaster movie. Directed by Brad Peyton (Journey 2), San Andreas features a plot that is accompanied by riveting special-effects scenes.

The film stars Dwayne Johnson as Ray Gaines, a decorated helicopter pilot who has led more than 600 rescue missions. At the point of departure, we find the Los Angeles Fire Department chief risking his life to pluck an accident victim (Stephanie Johnston) from a car that is dangling precipitously over a deep canyon. For you or me, such a dangerous maneuver would be unthinkable, but to Ray, it’s business as usual.

Meanwhile, Professor Lawrence Hayes (Paul Giamatti) is delivering a lecture at the California Institute of Technology in which he discusses the incredible power of earthquakes. When his colleague (Will Yun Lee) detects some unusual seismic activity in the vicinity of the Hoover Dam, the two scientists rush off to observe the event firsthand.

They arrive in time to witness the considerable damage caused by an earthquake that registered 7.1 on the Richter scale. Worse, their instrumentation indicates that this event is a precursor to an impending earthquake of much greater magnitude.

The ensuing shift in the San Andreas fault wreaks havoc all across California. Chief Gaines jumps into action, plucking his estranged wife, Emma (Carla Gugino), from the roof of a teetering skyscraper and then flying to the quake’s epicenter in San Francisco.

They flew there because their terrified daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) had called them for help. Fortunately she was being helped by two young British friends (Art Parkinson and Hugo Johstone-Burt).

While searching for their daughter, the desperate parents run a perilous gauntlet — via air sea and land — to the Bay Area, and encounter turbulence, tsunamis, and landslides along the way.

San Andreas has a cast of readily identifiable archetypes; the musclebound hero, the effete coward, the damsel in distress, the nerdy professor, each of whom are played perfectly by the talented cast.

Nonetheless, the best reason to see this summer blockbuster is to experience the eye-popping panoramas in 3D.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense action, mayhem, and brief profanity. Running time: 114 minutes. Studio: Warner Brothers Pictures.

May 27, 2015
Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

Mad Man begins and ends with Don Draper, formerly Dick Whitman, alone, and yet not alone. In the opening scene of the pilot, it’s the dawn of the sixties, he’s in a crowded, lively New York bar, people are drinking, smoking, laughing, talking, and at first all we see is the back of his head. We’re curious right away because he’s making notes on some cocktail napkins, and although he’s not actually sitting apart from the others, he’s a thoughtful island unto himself until he asks an elderly black waiter what brand of cigarettes he smokes and why. When the waiter admits how much he loves smoking, even though his wife has read somewhere that it “will kill you,” it’s obvious from Draper’s expression that this is an advertising issue he’s been seriously pondering. We know enough about the show at this point to intuit that his job is to sell people on a product that may be deadly. He looks around. Everyone’s smoking.

A decade later, the sixties is history and the same man is one of a group chanting Om at an Esalen-style retreat on Big Sur. The last words we hear from the group leader are “A new day … new ideas … a new you.” The camera moves in and this time we’re seeing Don Draper/Dick Whitman face to face, close up, though in reality we’re seeing a third person, the actor Jon Hamm, whose classic Hollywood charisma has anchored Mad Man from the beginning; he is the face of the series. During his on-the-American-road escape from Mad Avenue in the previous episodes, which the show’s creator Matthew Weiner says were inspired by the seminal TV series The Fugitive, Hamm conveys the rugged, hungover ambience of a taller, handsomer Humphrey Bogart.

The Real Thing?

So why end a seven season series about a Madison Avenue ad firm in the sixties with a Big Sur meditation session? As we stare into an immense close-up of the face that launched the show that saved AMC, we seem to be living out Dylan’s line, “Something’s happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Matthew Weiner has left it up to his audience to figure out what’s going on with this deeply conflicted artist who discovered his genius in the most absurd and demeaning of professional endeavors. Is he happy? Has he achieved the big E? Or is enlightenment beneath him? A joke? Like the old one about the quest for the wise man of the mountain who tells you “Life is just a bowl of cherries, my son.” Or maybe, “life is just an ice-cold bottle of Coke.”

But what’s going on with his mouth? Is that a smile, a half-smile, or is it, as some have suggested, a smirk? This isn’t the Mona Lisa we’re talking about, it’s our last look at one of the most complex and memorable characters to emerge from post-millennial television, along with Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, and Walter White. The last word comes from the realm of the absurd (“the best ad ever made,” says Weiner) as the angelic face of a young girl fills the screen singing “I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,” which segues into “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” while a we-are-the-world chorus of youths join in, each with the iconic bottle in hand, closing out the final season of Mad Men with three words dear to the heart of Henry James: “It’s the real thing.”

Thus, what for most mortals would signify the achievement of inner-peace is for Don Draper simply the return of his wayward muse. So much for the smirk. If anything, the half-smile is a work in progress, conveying a sense of pent-up inspiration, thoughtful urgency, if not impatience, to start putting the vision in play.

Bowing Out Early

For all its effectiveness (as Weiner notes, “it’s nice to have your cake and eat it too”), the ending didn’t make me regret bowing out of Mad Men two seasons earlier. Why did my wife and I give up when we did? Besides losing interest in the characters, the milieu, and the storylines, what put us off as much as anything was Don Draper’s second marriage (his first wife Betty’s second was no less yawn-inspiring). In an amusing bit of Esalen hilltop stream of consciousness on the New Yorker website (“What Don Draper Was Thinking in the Final Minutes of ‘Mad Men’”), John Kenney says it well, “Megan spoke French. Megan was annoying. God, she was annoying. Everything about her was annoying, even when she spoke French, which is rare, as French is so melodic. I don’t miss her. Why did I give her a million dollars?”

The Nuisance of Ads

The Sopranos ended brilliantly and controversially as Journey sang “Don’t Stop Believin’,” a choice made with a push of the button by Tony Soprano, who is looking up watchfully when the screen goes black. Whether the abrupt cut-off suggests sudden death or a metaphor for the ways of the world (sadly played out by the untimely death of James Gandolfini), it was a great ending to a greater if no less flawed work of television art (and one in which Weiner was creatively involved). In another great series, Breaking Bad, Walter White also died accompanied by irresistibly upbeat rock and roll, Badfinger’s “Baby Blue.” However true to itself, Mad Men’s Coke commercial ending inevitably trivializes the moment and reminds us that all these hours of generally superior television have been about a phenomenon so unappealing that the audience numbers lifting the last episode above all others depend on TiVo estimates of people who prefer to watch a show about advertising without enduring the nuisance of ads. Don’s fate is to be a poet in an essentially crass and unpoetical profession. Imagine Keats or Shelley brainstorming ads or writing jingles.

The Show’s Finest Hour

On the other hand, anyone who has a problem with the idea of ending one of television’s most celebrated creations with a Coke ad must have missed the Season One finale when Draper unveils his sales concept for the Kodak slide projector the company is calling The Wheel. Like a film director in a screening room, Draper turns down the lights and presents a slide show featuring images from happier days with his estranged family. As the images come and go, he defines nostalgia in terms that reflect his ambiguous personal history (“the pain from an old wound”), telling his clients that what they’re selling isn’t technology but memory. “This device isn’t a spaceship; it’s a time machine,” he says. “It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.”

If for nothing more than that moment, Matthew Weiner and everyone involved in the series has earned the acclaim and awards. As for describing Don Draper as an embattled poet, who else would notice someone in a bar reading Frank O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency” and be curious enough to read it? You knew Mad Men was something special when Jon Hamm read from O’Hara in voiceover, “Now I am quietly waiting for/the catastrophe of my personality/to seem beautiful again,/and interesting, and modern.”

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A review of Mad Men following the second season (“Jon Hamm Unforgettable as Mad Men’s Don Draper, the Soul of a Great Series”), echoed here, appeared in Town Topics, July 29, 2009.

SUMMER SUN: Work such as this by the Pennsylvania Impressionist Albert Van Nesse Greene (1887-1971) will be on show in the exhibition “Impressions of Life” at the Gratz Gallery and Conservation Studio, 5230 Silo Hill Road in Doylestown, from May 30 through August 31. There will be an opening reception Saturday, May 30 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. The show of over 60 pieces, will be one of the largest offerings of A.V. Greene’s work in recent years. It showcases a number of Pennsylvania landscapes and Maine harbor scenes, as well as some beautiful depictions of Europe. A color catalogue will be available for purchase and all featured works will be available on the gallery’s website a week prior to the opening. Gallery hours are Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m., as well as by appointment. For more information, call (215) 348-2500 or visit: www.gratzgallery.com.

SUMMER SUN: Work such as this by the Pennsylvania Impressionist Albert Van Nesse Greene (1887-1971) will be on show in the exhibition “Impressions of Life” at the Gratz Gallery and Conservation Studio, 5230 Silo Hill Road in Doylestown, from May 30 through August 31. There will be an opening reception Saturday, May 30 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. The show of over 60 pieces, will be one of the largest offerings of A.V. Greene’s work in recent years. It showcases a number of Pennsylvania landscapes and Maine harbor scenes, as well as some beautiful depictions of Europe. A color catalogue will be available for purchase and all featured works will be available on the gallery’s website a week prior to the opening. Gallery hours are Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m., as well as by appointment. For more information, call (215) 348-2500 or visit: www.gratzgallery.com.

The Gratz Gallery & Conservation Studio, at its new location, 5230 Silo Hill Road in Doylestown, is pleased to announce “Albert Van Nesse Greene (1887-1971) Impressions of Life,” an exhibition of paintings by the Pennsylvania Impressionist.

This inaugural exhibition at the gallery’s new space, will run from May 30 through August 31. There will be an opening reception at the gallery and studio on Saturday, May 30 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Born in Jamaica, New York, Albert Van Nesse Greene, often referred to as A.V. Greene, grew up in Washington, D.C. and studied at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. He furthered his studies at the Art Students League, the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, under Daniel Garber. While serving during World War I, the artist was seriously injured. After recovering he moved to Philadelphia in 1917. He began part-time work at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art’s Country School in Chester Springs (now Historic Yellow Springs) and ultimately settled in Chester Springs; choosing the area’s beautiful landscapes at the subjects of many of his compositions.

Mr. Van Nesse Greene was strongly influenced by the French Impressionists. His early work is highly impressionistic and embraces a palette more aligned with French painters than his American counterparts. Although his subjects tend to favor Pennsylvania landscapes, he also painted in Booth Bay, Maine and throughout Europe; creating a diverse and varied range of compositions. He was also an adept draftsman known for his beautiful pastel compositions. Greene’s artwork was exhibited extensively throughout the United States and France during his lifetime.

The forthcoming exhibition at Gratz Gallery and Conservation Studio will be one of the largest offerings of A.V. Greene’s work in recent years. The exhibition features over 60 pieces by Greene; a culmination of 30 years of collecting the artist’s finest works. “Impressions of Life” showcases a number of Pennsylvania landscapes and Maine harbor scenes, as well as some beautiful depictions of Europe. Mr. Van Nesse Greene enjoyed transcribing the landscape as it changed throughout the seasons; therefore, the exhibition includes a number of sunny springtime and crisp winter compositions.

In celebration of the forthcoming opening Gratz Gallery and Conservation Studio will be donating a portion of its proceeds to the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown. Gratz Gallery salutes the work the museum has done since it opened its doors in 1988, and would like to thank them for their dedication to the arts.

A color catalogue will be available for purchase throughout the exhibition. All featured works of art will be available on the gallery’s website a week prior to the opening.

The Gratz Gallery & Conservation Studio specializes in 19th and 20th century American paintings, with a focus on painters from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In addition to art investment Gratz Gallery also offers custom framing and fine art conservation services. The gallery is open Wednesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sundays, noon to 6 p.m., as well as by appointment. For more information, call (215) 348-2500 or visit: www.gratzgallery.com.

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WE’LL JUST HAVE TO MAKE THE BEST OF A BAD SITUATION: Daniella (Sofia Vergara, left) is thrown together with policewoman Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) when Daniella and her husband were ambushed as the authorities were arranging to put them into the witness protection program. Unfortunately, the transfer into the program was interrupted when a collusion of mobsters and crooked cops murdered Daniella’s husband. However, she and Cooper managed to escape and thus began their perilous, yet hilarious trip to safety in Dallas.(Photo by Sam Emerson-© 2015-Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and Warner Bros. Inc.)

WE’LL JUST HAVE TO MAKE THE BEST OF A BAD SITUATION: Daniella (Sofia Vergara, left) is thrown together with policewoman Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) when Daniella and her husband were ambushed as the authorities were arranging to put them into the witness protection program. Unfortunately, the transfer into the program was interrupted when a collusion of mobsters and crooked cops murdered Daniella’s husband. However, she and Cooper managed to escape and thus began their perilous, yet hilarious trip to safety in Dallas. (Photo by Sam Emerson-© 2015-Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. and Warner Bros. Inc.)

As the notorious kingpin of a drug cartel that is terrorizing Texas, Vincente Cortez (Joaquin Cosio) has orchestrated over a hundred murders. However, he’s never been convicted because the witnesses mysteriously disappear before they can testify against him.

Therefore, the authorities decide to take special precautions with the Rivas couple, the Cortez confederates who agreed to become state’s witnesses in the latest case against him. When the police escort arrives to place them in the witness protection program, the husband is killed in an ambush but his wife Daniella (Sofia Vergara) and policewoman Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) barely escape in a hail of bullets.

As they drive away in the Rivas’s Cadillac convertible, they realize that they’ve been targeted by mobsters and crooked cops. So, with no one but each other to lean on, the police officer and outlaw grudgingly join forces during their trip to a safe sanctuary in Dallas.

Of course, cooperating is easier said than done, because they’re polar opposites in almost every way. Daniella is a striking, statuesque chatterbox as oppposed to Cooper’s plain, diminutive, straitlaced personality. Nevertheless, the pair gradually bond during their road trip in which they have a close brush with death every five miles or so.

Directed by Anne Fletcher (The Proposal), Hot Pursuit is a mindless diversion full of the staples of the unlikely buddies genre, such as car chases and accidental drug use. Although the movie fails to break cinematic ground, it provides enough laughs to for this critic to recommend it.

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for sexuality, profanity, violence, and drug use. In English and Spanish with subtitles. Running time: 87 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

May 20, 2015

record revThe other night I found John Lennon alive and well online singing “There’s a little yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu” from “Nobody Told Me,” a song brimming over with the Lennon spirit, funny, straight-ahead, full of life, kick up your heels and let it roll. That slightly altered quote (“little” instead of “one-eyed”) from the old sidewalks-of-London busker’s delight, “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God,” was a happy surprise.

In the aftermath of the earthquakes, I’d been searching for material for a column about Kathmandu, and the Google genies had given me one of Lennon’s most engaging post-Beatles songs, with the subtle negativity of lines like “Everyone’s a winner and nothing left to lose” harking back to the passionate positivity of “nothing you can do that can’t be done, no one you can save that can’t be saved” from “All You Need is Love,” the song he sang to the world in the summer of 1967. While the other Beatles were performing at that worldwide television event, with a host of rock luminaries joining the chorus, it was John’s song, his words, his voice sending the message. In the best and most impossible of all worlds he would be at Abbey Road right now with his three mates recording a special song to raise much-needed money for Nepal Earthquake Relief.

The Himalaya Hotel

In his account of a journey to India and Nepal, poet Gary Snyder describes coming into Kathmandu at night and stopping at the Himalaya Hotel, which was “so filthy and rat-infested” that he moved next day to a hotel “a cut better.” Some years later, on Christmas Day, delirious with fever, I found refuge in the same hotel. In the almost three weeks I was laid up there, alone, I never saw any rats, but I could hear them in the wall.

The night Gary Snyder arrived, Kathmandu “was very quiet, and most shops were closed, because everyone was inside awaiting the end of the world,” since “at 3 p.m. that afternoon … all the visible planets plus the moon and sun went into conjunction and the whole Indian nation was convinced the world would be destroyed.”

On May 20, 2015, it’s impossible to read that passage without recalling images of the devastation inflicted on Nepal on April 25 and again on May 12. Maybe the astrologers Snyder refers to were weighing cosmic conjunctions with the geophysical odds, given that the magnitude 8.0 earthquake of 1934 had caused more than 10,000 deaths and that, according to Geohazards International, the Kathmandu Valley was the most dangerous place in the world in terms of per capita earthquake casualty risk.

If you could measure events in the timeline of a life according to seismic numbers, the three weeks in Kathmandu would measure around 7.8 to 8.0 magnitude on my personal Richter scale. For a start, I was coming down with a bad cold when I landed in the center of the city, still reeling from a skidding-and-sliding-on-the-edge-of-the-abyss journey from the Indian border in the back of a truck, an experience Snyder describes as “a 12-hour ride up to 9,000 feet and back down again on the wildest, twistiest road” he’d ever been on. Having eaten nothing since the previous morning at Raxaul on the Indian border, I didn’t hesitate when a welcoming party of stoned-out fellow hitchhikers urged me to sample a concoction they called Djibouti Roo from amid an array of fat chocolate goodies displayed on an elaborately embellished silver tray. Only after I’d wolfed down one of the biggest pieces did I learn that Djibouti Roo’s street name was Mad Dog Pie, and that in addition to several melted Cadbury fruit and nut bars, it contained a super group of mind-benders, including ganja, hash, morphine, opium, cocaine, and LSD.

Falling Down

The place we were sitting in as the Mad Dog began biting me had a wildly overblown reputation in the hitchhiker interzone. Time and again on the way east we heard that the Globe Cafe was the place to head if your goal was Christmas in Kathmandu. With Shakespeare’s playhouse in mind, I fantasized a Globe-like structure surrounded by streets as narrow, winding, and funky as those of Elizabethan London. While the streets lived up to my fantasy, the Globe itself was little more than a dingy, smoky, low-ceilinged room full of westerners Getting High and Being Cool. Upstairs was a sort of flophouse dormitory where I spent the next 12 hours, “hanging on for dear life,” as the saying goes, while everything fell to pieces around me.

Getting upstairs had been an epic undertaking. As soon as I tried to stand I fell down. Stood up, took two steps, fell down again. A grim-faced Nepalese woman was showing me to the staircase, which was outside the building. Every time I toppled she glared over her shoulder, waiting for me to get back on my feet. It was beyond “if looks could kill.” Such was the depth of dismissal in her stare, this dark lady of the Globe, that hers became the face plaguing long nights and days of fever in my freezing cave of a room at the Himalaya Hotel.

Loud Mouth Lime

Among the jumble of things on the bulletin board above my desk at home is a clipping of a grinning green face with a big blue mouth and above the silly creature the words Loud Mouth Lime in purple letters. On my desk as I write is a pile of ancient Indian aerogrammes postmarked Calcutta, Benares, Allahabad and New Delhi filled to the brim with leaky ballpoint messages from me intermingling with a number of neatly written-with-fountain-pen letters on pale blue crinkly stationary with matching envelopes postmarked Berkeley, Beverly Hills, and Los Angeles from a girl I’d met three years before at a party in a Haste Street apartment house (since destroyed) in Berkeley.

Loud Mouth Lime appeared in one of the two California letters that found me in Kathmandu sweating out the nightly fevers in a U.S. Army sleeping bag laid on a charpoi in the Himalaya Hotel. My only medicine was a bottle of Aspro aspirin I bought at a nearby shop along with a packet of British arrowroot biscuits, which was all I had to eat in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. I had nothing to drink but the cold jars of water — “Kathmandu water is full of mica and gives everyone the runs” says Gary Snyder, though luckily for me it had just the opposite effect — and glasses of hot milky tea brought to me several times a day by a Nepalese boy no more than 10 who was only slightly less coldly indifferent to my humanity than the dark lady of the Globe had been. The way this lad scrutinized me you’d have thought that a giant green sleeping-bag caterpillar (Gregor Samsa comes to Kathmandu) had crawled into view from the rat-infested shadows. It wasn’t until around January 2 that I managed to make it half a block down New Road to the Indira Cafe to put some scrambled eggs in my stomach and to ask people who knew my friends to tell them where I was.

The low point came in the first week of January when I began to doubt that I’d ever get well. I was weak, exhausted from the strain of holding back a coughing fit I was sure would be the end of me. To this day I have no memory of picking up mail at the U.S. Embassy. All I know is that two letters from California dated December 10 and 21 showed up when my morale was in free fall. The first letter is bright, cheerful, playful, with some local color: “Buddhism is all the rage as are all mystic cults. Berkeley looks like Trafalgar Square all the time — the English beat look is in.” After apologizing for complaining about “non-thinking conformists” and “the nuts on Telegraph Avenue,” she stops writing to “go put on a Beatles record,” which makes her feel “cheery and crazy” while apparently inspiring her to clip the funny face off a packet of Kool Aid, tape it to the page, and end the letter thus, “Below is my most recent photograph which accompanied an interview which the editor of the New York Review of Books had printed last month. The interview pointed out the long winded but smiling-sardonic quality of my prose works, of which you have an example in your hand. Hoping my picture will encourage you to write, I am, as I have always been, Loud Mouth Lime.”

Strange and wonderful (“Strange days indeed,” as John sings in “Nobody Told Me”) that this grinning green face should have the power to lift me out of the endgame doldrums, even becoming a kind of comic keepsake, a joy-making version of the Green Eye of the Little Yellow God pinned on the bulletin board above my desk. Little did I know I was hooked, caught, my future foreshadowed in that silly smiling face, and in case I doubted my fate the letter from December 21 suggests that if I didn’t “freeze in the Himalayas, or get eaten by the abominable snowman, and if we get on well would I mind if we were together for most of the summer?”

Five months later in Venice we were together, and we’ve been together four decades and counting, for better or worse, ever since.

Sidewalks of London

Wondering what inspired John Lennon’s quote from “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God,” my guess is that while watching The Late Late Show with Yoko one New York night, he had seen Charles Laughton reciting the J. Milton Hayes poem about Mad Carew and the yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu in St. Martin’s Lane (or Sidewalks of London), a film celebrating buskers and the beauty of Vivien Leigh that my wife L.M. Lime and I saw on a rented TV in Bristol in the early 1970s.

I read Gary Snyder’s “Now, India” in the October 1972 number of the journal, Caterpillar, which can be found in Snyder’s book Passage Through India (Counterpoint paperback 2009). “Nobody Told Me” is on the posthumous album, Milk and Honey (1984). As a single, it was Lennon’s last to reach the Top Ten in both the U.K. and U.S.

GALLERY 353 GETS READY TO OPEN: Gallery Director Patrick Ryan pauses from hanging new work by local artist Heather Sturt Haaga for the inaugural exhibition, “California Colors: Plein Air and Still Life Paintings,” that will launch Princeton’s newest art gallery this Friday, May 22. An opening reception will take place from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Mr. Ryan is currently installing 24 oil paintings by Ms. Haaga. Located in the McCarthy building at 353 Nassau Street, the gallery will be open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, from noon to 6 p.m., with additional hours during Princeton University Reunions Weekend: Friday, May 29, from 2 to 6:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 30, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.; and Sunday, May 31, from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. For more information, call (803) 334-8838, or visit: www.gallery353.com. For more on the featured artist, visit: www.heatherhaaga.com.(Photograph by L. Arntzenius)

GALLERY 353 GETS READY TO OPEN: Gallery Director Patrick Ryan pauses from hanging new work by local artist Heather Sturt Haaga for the inaugural exhibition, “California Colors: Plein Air and Still Life Paintings,” that will launch Princeton’s newest art gallery this Friday, May 22. An opening reception will take place from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Mr. Ryan is currently installing 24 oil paintings by Ms. Haaga. Located in the McCarthy building at 353 Nassau Street, the gallery will be open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, from noon to 6 p.m., with additional hours during Princeton University Reunions Weekend: Friday, May 29, from 2 to 6:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 30, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.; and Sunday, May 31, from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. For more information, call (803) 334-8838, or visit: www.gallery353.com. For more on the featured artist, visit: www.heatherhaaga.com. (Photograph by L. Arntzenius)

A new art gallery opens in Princeton this Friday, May 22, with an exhibition of oil paintings by Heather Sturt Haaga. Ms. Haaga is well-known in Princeton as both a painter and a philanthropist.

The aptly named Gallery 353 is located in the McCarthy building at 353 Nassau Street, just north of the intersection with Harrison Street and next door to the Cloak and Dagger Mystery Bookstore. The grand opening and reception will take place from 5:30-8:30 p.m.

The gallery is the brainchild of Patrick Ryan, who was born and raised in the Princeton area and formerly directed the largest art gallery in Charleston, South Carolina, for five years until 2005 when it relocated to Chicago.

Gallery 353’s inaugural exhibition of Ms. Haaga’s work, “California Colors: Plein Air and Still Life Paintings,” will include 23 pieces from the artist and one that is on loan from Princeton’s municipal Judge Jack McCarthy, who owns the building in which the gallery is housed. “I’ve known Jack since since the 1960s and so when I returned to Princeton and wanted to set-up my own gallery, the basement space in the McCarthy building presented itself,” said Mr. Ryan during a pause in his preparations for the opening.

Although partially below ground, the gallery has a light, airy feel that belies its location, with a deep window along one exterior wall so that it benefits from daylight. Lots of interior lighting ensures a bright space. The main entrance to the gallery is in the rear of the building where there is some parking.

The work in the opening exhibition is all relatively recent and ranges in price from the 8 by 10 inch Barn Country at $500 to the 24 by 36 inch California Spring at $3,000, the show’s piece de resistance and also its largest.

Ms. Haaga’s titles yield a flavor of what is on view: Adirondack Afternoon, Hollyhock Cottage, Lily Pond, Pears on a Sideboard, The Turkish Vase, with a touch of humor thrown in, Time to Brush Your Teeth, and Mailbox Line Up. There are several Normandy scenes, including a landscape diptych, and still lifes.

For these paintings, the artist worked in oil, either out-of-doors or in her studio in La Cañada Flintridge, California. “Perhaps it is because of the light, the warmth, the character of the place, but colors in California seem to be heightened, more intense. The palette of the paintings adds to their story, enhances the viewer’s response to the object or landscape, and helps convey the spirit of the piece,” said Ms. Haaga, who hopes that viewers will engage with the exhibition not only through subject matter but through color as well.

Here is an artist who explores and ponders the ways in which light and color are observed. “There is a theory that anyone can draw; it is simply a matter of learning how to observe the world more carefully. And, whenever you do observe more specifically, you find the world is full of interesting spaces and colors — colors that may or may not be obvious,” she explained. “Some people see color in a different way, literally. Apparently, we do not see the same way — one more miracle of nature.”

“Heather is a gifted painter,” said Mr. Ryan, “as well as a philanthropist and worker for good causes. In addition to being a trustee of the seminary and of Vassar College, she chairs the board of the Salzburg Global Seminar, whose mission is to challenge current and future leaders to solve issues of global concern.”

With her husband, Paul Haaga, a trustee of Princeton University as well as of several other educational and cultural organizations (he was formerly acting CEO of NPR and chair of the board of the Huntington Library, said Mr. Ryan), Ms. Haaga divides her time between Princeton, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.

“Heather is a passionate painter and her use of color is very compelling; this show is bound to be a success,” said the gallery director, who is looking to build up a stable of Gallery 353 artists. So far, he’s working with Ms. Haaga, the art photographer Richard Trenner, and painter Nancy Merrill who lives in Pennington. It is Mr. Ryan’s intention to have regular exhibitions of the work of Gallery 353 artists. Work by Mr. Trenner will be exhibited from mid-September through early October and new work by Ms. Merrill will be on display after that. “I’m interested in contemporary and local artists and there are many fine creative talents in this area,” said Mr. Ryan, adding that he’s looking to include work in three dimensions. “I have enormous admiration for creative artists who put their work out there before the public; that can be a scary thing.”

According to the new gallery’s director, its relatively small size suits him after running a much bigger operation in South Carolina, where he inherited some 50 artists and an inventory of over 1,000 pieces. “That was challenging; Gallery 353 will be a pleasure; it will allow me to give each artist their due and to really get to know their work.”

In addition to contemporary art, Gallery 353 will showcase estate antiques on consignment as well as unusual pieces that catch Mr. Ryan’s eye. Right now, he is taken by the work of the late Czech artist Antonin Marek Machourek (1913–1991), a pupil of Mark Chagall. He has an inventory of his paintings for sale.

The gallery will take 50 percent of all sales, which Mr. Ryan said is pretty typical, although really prominent artists whose work commands prices in the hundreds of thousand would receive a higher percentage.

Although he is not an artist himself, Mr. Ryan, who lives on Cherry Valley Road, discovered a love of art when he was an undergraduate at Princeton University. Having grown up on a family dairy farm in Pennington, he said, he had little exposure to art. He did, however, develop a feeling for history. The family home, the historic Benjamin Temple house dating to 1750, incidentally, was once threatened by the construction of I-95 and in 1973 was moved from the old Hopewell-Trenton Road (Route 31) to Federal City Road, where it is now the headquarters of the Ewing Township Historic Preservation Society.

Mr. Ryan graduated with a degree in medieval history in 1968. Since then, he’s traveled extensively. “I’m a bit of a gypsy at heart,” he said, “I’ve lived all over, in Hawaii, in La Jolla, in Sante Fe …” And he’s tried his hand at a variety of things along the way, most recently as a pecan farmer in South Carolina.

Following the launch of Gallery 353 on Friday, May 22, gallery hours will be Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, from noon to 6 p.m. In addition, there will be special gallery hours during Princeton University Reunions Weekend on Friday, May 29, from 2 to 6:30 p.m.; Saturday, May 30, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.; and Sunday, May 31, from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.

For more information, call (803) 334-8838, or visit: www.gallery353.com. For more on the featured artist, visit: www.heatherhaaga.com.

GOSH, I HOPE HE LIKES MY SONG: Beca (Anna Kendrick) has secretly taken an internship with an award winning record producer in hopes that he will like the songs that she has written.(Photo by Richard Cartwright-© Universal Pictures)

GOSH, I HOPE HE LIKES MY SONG: Beca (Anna Kendrick) has secretly taken an internship with an award winning record producer in hopes that he will like the songs that she has written. (Photo by Richard Cartwright-© Universal Pictures)

The Bellas are back and badder than before! In case you’re unfamiliar with the sassy, all-girl singing group, they’re students at Barden University, a fictional college located in Atlanta, Georgia. In the original movie, the students overcame a number of frustrating setbacks on the road to victory at the national a cappella competition.

Now the crew, led by senior Chloe (Brittany Snow), have their sights set on the world championship in Copenhagen. However, they get off to a horrible start, because of an embarrassing onstage wardrobe malfunction experienced by Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) during a command performance for President Obama and the First Lady.

The audience lets out a collective gasp when her leotard splits down the middle. As consequence of this unfortunate incident, the Barden Bellas are temporarily suspended from participating in competitions by the college’s board of governors.

During this break from performing, the movie develops the lives of several members of the group. Bumper (Adam DeVine) admires Amy but will she let him see her sensitive side? Meanwhile, Beca (Anna Kendrick) secretly takes an internship with a Grammy-winning record producer (Keegan-Michael Key), hoping that he will listen to the songs she’s composed.

There’s also suspense about an angry black lesbian (Ester Dean), a freshman Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) who has low self-esteem; and an undocumented alien (Chrissie Fit) who is afraid she will be deported. The banter frequently borders on the politically incorrect, but it somehow works, perhaps because it’s never too mean-spirited.

As the assorted controversies are gradually resolved, the story focuses on the big competition against The Sound Machine, the German group that is the defending world champion. Paradoxically, even though the groups are supposed to be singing a cappella renditions of classic hits and show tunes, all the vocalists are accompanied by musical instruments.

Will the Bellas win? Sit back and enjoy the ride. As Bobby McFerrin would sing, “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Very Good (***). Rated PG-13 for profanity and sexual innuendo. Running time: 115 minutes. Distributor: Universal Pictures.

May 13, 2015

100 best novels murphyExcept for the lack of a parking spot on Charlie Parker Place, the transition from Princeton to Manhattan has never been smoother, turnpike to tunnel, uptown, crosstown to a bench in Tompkins Square Park and a sunny spring day of chirping sparrows and grumbling pigeons. While dogs are romping nearby in their own playground, I’m reading about dachsunds “of such length and lowness” that “it makes very little difference to their appearance whether they stand, sit or lie.”

Until I bought the Grove Press paperback of Murphy (1938) last week in Doylestown, I’d never found a way to read Samuel Beckett. In all the English courses I took in college and graduate school, he’d never been on the reading list, no friend had ever chanted his name in my ear, “you must read this,” and I’d never seen a performance of Waiting for Godot. But when I read in Chapter 5 of Murphy that the title character was one of those “who require everything to remind them of something else,” I caught a glimpse of myself in Beckett’s mirror. Of course everything reminds everyone of something, but to require it is another matter and not unlike what I do when I compose a column. Beckett is requiring it in a room where the “lemon of the walls whined like Vermeer’s,” “the unupholstered armchairs” resembled “those killed under him by Balzac,” and the linoleum’s “dim geometry of blue, grey and brown delighted Murphy because it called Braque to his mind.”

Having it Both Ways

After a mere 109 pages of Murphy, Beckett has become a state of mind, a place, a way of life. It’s very Beckett, in fact, that my motive for finally reading and writing about him is based on misinformation about his birth. According to wwnndb.com, he was born on this date, May 13, in 1906. Look elsewhere and the date is April 13. The New York Times obituary of December 27, 1989, has it both ways: “Samuel Barclay Beckett was born in Foxrock, a suburb of Dublin, on Good Friday, April 13, 1906 (that date is sometimes disputed; it is said that on his birth certificate the date is May 13).”

You don’t need to read far in Beckett to appreciate the April/May conundrum. If you have it both ways, or all ways, right or wrong or neither, whether you’re looking for a subject for a column or a New York moment, it becomes possible not only to penetrate what had seemed impenetrable but to see Beckett spilling off the page into the “real life” ambience of dogs and sparrows and people on a spring day in an East Village park.

Enter Nelly and Shelley

As the reader on the park bench in New York resumes reading, Murphy’s title character is in London’s Hyde Park placing five biscuits “face upward on the grass, in order as he felt of edibility … a Ginger, an Osborne, a Digestive, a Petit Beurre and one anonymous.” While he contemplates those items “of which it could be said as truly as of the stars, that one differed from another,” a “corpulent middle-aged woman” asks him if he would mind holding “her little doggy.” Miss Rosie Dew has come all the way from Paddington to feed greens from her garden to “the poor dear sheep” grazing nearby (such was the case in those days). The doggy, a dachsund called Nelly, is, her owner admits, in heat, and Miss Dew is afraid that if Nelly is not held she will “be off and away,” to “plunge the fever of her blood in the Serpentine or in the Long Water for that matter, like Shelley’s first wife you know, her name was Harriet was it not, not Nelly, Shelley, Nelly, oh Nelly how I ADORE you.”

At this moment the reader on the park bench, who has come all the way from Princeton, is grinning as he rereads the passage, with its abrupt, absurd, delightfully rhymingly remindfully blending of Shelley and Nelly. It’s really as if Beckett’s doggy mind has gone for a romp in the park of the page, and Murphy, who “requires everything to remind him of something else,” has found another Romantic poet in the “dingy, close-cropped, undersized and misshapen” sheep that want nothing to do with Miss Dew’s offerings. It’s right about now that the reader is reminded that the author served as James Joyce’s secretary when he was writing Finnegan’s Wake, so is it any wonder that he imagines “a compositor’s error” transforming Wordsworth’s “lovely ‘fields of sleep’” into “‘fields of sheep.’”

Time for a breather after all this chasing after Beckett, who has been cavorting unleashed all over Tompkins Square Park, and we haven’t even come to the first of several denouements, or punch-lines. It seems that while Murphy was engaged by the spectacle of Miss Dew’s “tendering of lettuce” to the dejected, disinterested sheep, the dachsund was eating all the biscuits “with the exception of the Ginger, which cannot have remained in her mouth for more than a couple of seconds.” Murphy thereupon points out to Miss Dew that while “the sheep may not fancy your cabbage … your hot dog has eaten my lunch … or as much of it as she could stomach.” The matter is settled when Miss Dew gives Murphy threepence for “his loss.”

Much more could be said about Miss Dew’s talents as a medium “who could make the dead softsoap the quick in seven languages,” but once you start quoting Beckett you’re lost. As Leslie Fielder notes in a 1997 New York Times appraisal of Murphy, Beckett’s “eerie deadpan humor” involves “the gravely mathematical working out of all the possibilities of the most trivial situation,” for it’s as a “vaudevillian of the avant-garde” that he “especially tickles us, converting its most solemn devices into quite serious gags.” Fiedler finds Murphy the “funniest, perhaps, of his novels,” one that “evokes a ferocity of terror and humor that shames most well-made novels of our time.”

Beckett in Manhattan

In Norman Mailer’s 1958 collection Advertisements for Myself, the excitement generated among New York theatregoers and intellectuals in the spring of 1956 by the Broadway production of Waiting for Godot inspires Mailer to, in effect, jump all over Godot in his column for the Village Voice before, as he admits, either seeing or reading the play. After facetiously congratulating the critics for revealing that the title “has something to do with God,” Mailer points out that Godot “also means ‘ot Dog, or the dog who is hot,” thus “To Dog The Coming, and God Hot for Waiting,” or “Go, Dough! (Go, Life!)” (among “a hundred subsidiary themes”), though in the end he likes “To Dog the Coming” best.

This romp in the dog park of Mailer’s undaunted and ever expanding ego precedes his announcement that a quarrel with the editors of the Voice has made the outburst on Godot his “last column” for the paper “at least under its present policy.”

How rare, how sweet, how very Beckett, that after finally seeing and reading the play and realizing “it was, at the least, very good,” Mailer returns to the Voice long enough to write a mea culpa (“It is never particularly pleasant for me to apologize, and in the present circumstances, I loathe doing so”), which he ceremoniously titles “A Public Notice on Waiting for Godot.” It’s six pages of Mailer throwing everything he’s got at Beckett’s “sad little story, but told purely” — until the character Lucky enters and delivers “the one strangled cry of active meaning in the whole play, a desperate retching pellmell of broken thoughts and intuitive lurches into the nature of man, sex, God, and time” that “comes from a slave, a wretch, who is closer to the divine than any of the other characters.”

Thirteen years later, when the Nobel Committee gave the prize in literature to Beckett, an Irishman who had lived in France most of his life, his French wife said, “This is a catastrophe” while the author of Godot left them waiting in Stockholm and gave away the prize money.

Earth Opera

I’m sitting on the same bench in Tompkins Square Park with my son watching the dogs at play and talking about Earth Opera, one of the great lost groups of the sixties. The words and music from the self-titled debut album had been haunting me for days because the lead singer and lyricist, Peter Rowan, was the first and only person to point me in the direction of Beckett. True to Murphy’s law about requiring everything to remind him of something else, Beckett reminds me of Rowan, who reminds me of watching Earth Opera perform free summer Sunday concerts on the Cambridge Common.

Back from three hours browsing the stock at Academy Records, my son had been hoping to find the first Earth Opera album, which had seen him through some hard times in his late teens. The same record had meant so much to me in my late twenties that I looked up Peter Rowan’s number in the Boston phone book and called him to talk about it. Here was someone whose roots were in bluegrass, who had played with Bill Monroe, and now he was writing Brechtian songs like “Home of the Brave” (“and the war was grand, a glorious parade”), “Death by Fire,” which ends “no willow will weep for her silence of ashes, will sleep in the new fallen snow,” and “Time and Again,” which begins “Every day is the same growing gently insane/it’s the wind or the rain/but I don’t feel anything.” Then there were lines like “and it is being only being, it is as it was before” and “I can see you combing sleep from your hair as you choose what to wear and you whisper who’s there to the mirror on the wall.”

So here I was, a total stranger calling Rowan up like Holden Caulfield calling Fitzgerald after reading Gatsby, asking, in effect, who’s your favorite writer, where did all this come from?

Said Peter Rowan without hesitation, “Beckett. Samuel Beckett.”

CHILDHOOD MEMORY: That’s the title of this work by Taryn, a participant in the Arts Council of Princeton’s ArtsExchange program in conjunction with HomeFront. It will be shown with other works by children in the exhibition “All Eyes on Nature,” which opens Thursday, May 14, in the Olivia Rainbow Gallery at the D&R Greenway Land Trust, One Preservation Place. The show will continue through June 26. For more information, call (609) 924-4646 or visit: www.drgreenway.org.

CHILDHOOD MEMORY: That’s the title of this work by Taryn, a participant in the Arts Council of Princeton’s ArtsExchange program in conjunction with HomeFront. It will be shown with other works by children in the exhibition “All Eyes on Nature,” which opens Thursday, May 14, in the Olivia Rainbow Gallery at the D&R Greenway Land Trust, One Preservation Place. The show will continue through June 26. For more information, call (609) 924-4646 or visit: www.drgreenway.org.

D&R Greenway welcomes the public to “All Eyes on Nature,” an exhibition of innovative works by ArtsExchange students of the Arts Council of Princeton, through HomeFront. Dynamic images of nature from the insects’ perspective may be viewed in the land trust’s Olivia Rainbow Gallery from May 14 through June 26.

Since 1993, the Arts Council of Princeton has partnered with HomeFront, which serves thousands of Mercer County families to help break the cycle of poverty and end homelessness in offering ArtsExchange, a weekly program where year-round arts instruction is provided to more than 75 children, ages 5-18, whose families are currently living in transient circumstances.

For “All Eyes on Nature,” Arts Council of Princeton Outreach Program Manager/Instructor Eva Mantell guided her students to create paintings from the vantage point of insects. Ms. Mantell asked, “What are flowers, leaves, even surrounding landscapes, when you are an insect? Where is the horizon? Where is the ground? Where is the sun? What size are the elements in the painting?”

“All Eyes on Nature” comprises the children’s vibrant answers. The lively results are intended to catalyze a greater sensitivity to nature, its beauty and its peril. “They recreated nature’s own shifts in scale, colors, and textures, as well as its marvelous complexity and interconnectedness,” explained Ms. Mantell. “Native species were their starting point, each communicating his or her own ‘insect’ energy and excitement.”

D&R Greenway’s Olivia Rainbow Gallery is funded in memory of four-year-old Olivia Kuenne, who cherished nature and art. Sequential nature exhibitions by students extend Olivia’s enthusiasms into our time.

The Arts Council of Princeton thanks the following funders for their support of the ArtsExchange programming in 2014-15: ACP Fundraising Galas, Charles Galbraith Testamentary Trust, Colgate via United Way, The Concordia Foundation, The Firmenich Charitable Foundation, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Johnson & Johnson Family of Consumer Companies, Contributions Fund of the Community Foundation of New Jersey, Mary Owen Borden Foundation, The Migedan Foundation, Inc., New Jersey State Council on the Arts, NRG.

“All Eyes on Nature” will be on view at the D&R Greenway Land Trust, One Preservation Place, from May 14 through June 26. For more information, call (609) 924-4646 or visit: www.drgreenway.org.

———

SMALL-TOWN CLAUSTROPHOBIA: Rufus (Nathan Darrow), back home for a visit from New York, and Mary (Kristen Bush), still living in the small town where they grew up, share memories, hopes, frustrations, and gummy worms in McCarter Theatre’s production of Rachel Bonds’ “Five Mile Lake,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31. © T Charles Erickson

SMALL-TOWN CLAUSTROPHOBIA: Rufus (Nathan Darrow), back home for a visit from New York, and Mary (Kristen Bush), still living in the small town where they grew up, share memories, hopes, frustrations, and gummy worms in McCarter Theatre’s production of Rachel Bonds’ “Five Mile Lake,” playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31. © T Charles Erickson

“Where does one get to with your heroes?” Leo Tolstoy complained about his Russian contemporary Anton Chekhov,” from the sofa to the outhouse and from the outhouse back to the sofa again.” And audiences might well make a similar complaint about the characters and plot of Five Mile Lake, Rachel Bonds’ new play (which premiered at South Coast Repertory in California a year ago) now at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31.

Not much seems to happen or change for Ms. Bonds’ five troubled, frustrated, young characters, but the greatness of Chekhov and the power of Ms. Bonds’ play lie not in sensational plot twists or dramatic events, but rather in the subtleties of human behavior and the understated relationships and interactions that can quietly shape people and their lives. Ms. Bonds’ characters, all struggling to work through the demands and disappointments of early adulthood, reveal themselves gradually, realistically, through what looks like casual dialogue, but resonates with realism and emotion.

The richness here lies often in the subtext — what is not said, rather than what is said — as these characters in their gestures, intonation, body language, facial expressions, perhaps a quick glance or movement — display their deepest selves and greatest needs.

Five Mile Lake takes place in a small town near Scranton, Pennsylvania in seven short scenes (just one hour and 40 minutes of uninterrupted running time), that occur over a period of several days in winter. Jamie (Tobias Segal) and Mary (Kristen Bush), both approaching 30, run the local bakery/coffee shop. Jamie never left town because he loves the beautiful lake and he is in love with Mary, and his ambitions lie locally: fixing up his grandfather’s house that he has inherited on the lake, taking care of his mother — and winning Mary’s attention and affection.

Mary, however, still dreams of escape from the claustrophobia of small-town life. She feels trapped, and is currently taking care of her brother Danny, who is back from two military tours in Afghanistan, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and struggling to get a job and lead a normal life. A cross country runner in high school, Mary has found her runs becoming shorter and shorter as her world shrinks and her life becomes more limited. She yearns for an escape.

Near the end of the first scene, Jamie’s brother Rufus (Nathan Darrow) and his girlfriend Peta (Mahira Kakkar) arrive from New York on an unexpected visit that will unsettle the worlds of Mary and Jamie. Rufus is unsuccessfully trying to write his PhD dissertation, and Peta is an assistant magazine editor. They come out to Rufus’ old hometown and the house he co-owns with Jamie (but seldom visits) in order to “work on their relationship.”

Tension is high from the start — Between Jamie and Mary, between the two brothers and between Rufus and Peta, whose relationship, we discover, is seriously troubled. There is an immediate attraction between Rufus and Mary, who share an affinity for the larger world beyond the confines of Five Mile Lake, and that attraction proves seriously upsetting to both Peta and Jamie.

Five Mile Lake is about the difficulties of entering adulthood, about ambitions and about small-town life versus the allure of the big city. It is about memories and regrets, about establishing relationships, and finding a path forward towards fulfillment.

Though “nothing happens” as the scenes move back and forth between Jamie and Rufus’ lake house and the coffee shop, the four protagonists, all convincing, credible individuals, become more and more intriguing as we learn more about their pasts, their present fears, and their dreams for the future.

The character of Peta, the least thoroughly developed of the four principals, would be interesting to know in more depth and detail — as would the relationship between the two brothers. It’s difficult to believe these two actually grew up together in the same home, though maybe that’s the point, as these estranged siblings struggle in vain to make connections with each other in the face of so many barriers and so much time apart.

Near the end of the play, as Mary and Jamie are preparing to open the coffee shop for the first customers of the day, Mary relates a story about a figure skater on TV, who, near the finale of what would have been a spectacular performance, misses her landing. “You can see something breaking in her,” Mary reports, “–it’s like this little crack running down the side of a teacup, just this terrible sense of failure like running across her skin. And she’s thinking, I missed it. I missed it.”

As Ernest Hemingway described in A Farewell to Arms, in the context of World War I, “the world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” The cracks in Five Mile Lake, some more subtle than others, appear in all of the characters — “something breaking,” some wound from the past that does not fully heal, something they’ve “missed.”

Ms. Bonds’ script that, like Chekhov and Hemingway at their best, is rich in its reticence and its unadulterated realism, along with these highly committed, capable, focused actors under the wise, loving, scrupulous direction of Emily Mann, ensure that audiences will care about these people. Even the occasionally arrogant, insensitive Rufus and Mary’s volatile brother Danny (Jason Babinsky), in a supporting role, win over the audience. We care deeply about these characters, worry about them, wonder where they’re heading as the play ends. To establish that degree of audience engagement is an extraordinary accomplishment for playwright, director, and performers.

Production values here are exquisite, most notably Edward Pierce’s meticulously realistic set design, with lighting by Jeff Croiter, to create the detailed scenes inside and outside the bakery shop and also inside and outside Jamie’s lake cabin. The turntable revolves with impressive efficiency and style to shift venues seamlessly and convincingly.

Tolstoy and his preferences for high-action drama notwithstanding, Five Mile Lake provides a moving, memorable evening in the Berlind Theatre. Rachel Bonds is a young playwright whose work will surely be staged frequently in the future.

Rachel Bonds’ “Five Mile Lake” will run at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through May 31. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org for tickets and information.

Princeton Pro Musica closed its 2014-15 season this past Saturday night with a work well suited for the ensemble, and in an appropriate acoustical space, but the performance may have missed the opportunity to educate its loyal audience about a unique period in music history. The 100-voice chorus presented 11 movements of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil to a full house at the Princeton University Chapel, but a lack of context for why the chorus selected the movements it did for performance may have left the audience unaware of the unique and historic musical effects Rachmaninoff employed in the piece.

Rachmaninoff composed his setting of the All-Night Vigil in 1915, as Russia was teetering toward revolution and Rachmaninoff was conversely achieving worldwide acclaim as a conductor, virtuoso pianist, and composer. The Vigil, the traditional Russian Orthodox service celebrated before major feasts or on Saturday evenings, combined portions of three daily services. These texts were not foreign to Russian composers; Tchaikovsky also produced a setting in 1882. Rachmaninoff set 12 traditional parts of the Vigil, with the addition of three movements of his own. Like much of Russian choral music, Rachmaninoff set the Church Slavonic text for a cappella chorus, which was tailor-made for the vast acoustics of the University Chapel.

Conductor Ryan James Brandau selected movements 1-8, and 10, 11 and 15 — excluding the movements that Rachmaninoff added, as well as one movement of traditional praise text. With unfortunately no explanatory notes in the printed program, it was difficult to know why specific movements were selected or deleted. The singers of Pro Musica certainly had their hands full; the concert was less than an hour in length, but an hour of music in Church Slavonic would require great preparation. Through much of the piece, the preparation of Pro Musica came through well. There were many passages during which the chorus moved through dynamics uniformly, and diction was consistently clean. The reverberating acoustics of the University Chapel made it difficult to always discern choral precision and when the music split the chorus into as many as 12 parts Brandau maintained good control over ending movements gracefully. There were some unfortunate lapses in tuning in a couple of movements, particularly at the end of the piece, when the choral chords became a little unstable at the close of the work.

Joining Pro Musica were mezzo-soprano Cynthia Cook and tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven. Ms. Cook, featured in the second movement, sang from the Chapel lectern with incredible richness while accompanied by a stream of sound from the chorus (interestingly, this solo was sung by a boy in the work’s premiere). The soprano sectional sound in this movement was especially clean, as Brandau kept the combined sonority of soloist and chorus steady. Kyle van Schoonhoven is a Westminster Choir College graduate who has done well, singing with opera companies throughout the country. From the Chapel lectern, his solid tenor sound fit in well with the upper choral voices that provided the bulk of the responding text in the fourth movement, with the basses answering “Alliluiya.” Both soloist and chorus created more fervency in the text, ending the movement with a joyful character.

In his introductory remarks to the concert, Brandau suggested that the audience “let the music come to you and wash over you.” This was easy to do in the University Chapel, but what the audience missed was listening for the different types of chants Rachmaninoff employed in the piece. Znamenny, the oldest form of unison, melismatic Orthodox chant, figures prominently in this work, contrasted with Rachmaninoff’s use of Greek and regional Russian chant, as well as chants of his own composition. Without knowing the details of the chant setting, the piece runs the risk of becoming a set of homophonic movements with no connection or delineation. However, the audience present at the University Chapel on Saturday night seemed committed to supporting Pro Musica throughout the season, including this concert of challenging Russian choral works.

WHAT A WAY TO GET AROUND IN THE POST-APOCALYPTIC YEAR 2060: Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) directs the driver of his Rube Goldberg means of transportation. He will soon meet up with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, not shown) and help her in her quest to rescue a group of sex slaves from their captor Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, not shown).(Photo by Jasin Boland—© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

WHAT A WAY TO GET AROUND IN THE POST-APOCALYPTIC YEAR 2060: Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) directs the driver of his Rube Goldberg means of transportation. He will soon meet up with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, not shown) and help her in her quest to rescue a group of sex slaves from their captor Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, not shown). (Photo by Jasin Boland—© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Fury Road restarts the legendary Mad Max series which has been dormant for several decades. This fourth movie was again produced, written, and directed by Oscar-winner George Miller (Happy Feet) who chose Tom Hardy to replace Mel Gibson in the title role of Max Rockatansky — the former highway patrol officer who has become an intrepid road warrior who dispenses grisly vigilante justice.

Set in 2060 A.D., this post-apocalyptic adventure unfolds in the grim dystopia that is left after a series of global calamities that led to a breakdown of civilization. At the point of departure, we find Max haunted by his tragic past and hunted by desperate scavengers as he drifts around the vast wasteland in a rusty, rattling, off-road car.

The stoic gunslinger’s resolve to go it alone changes when he crosses paths with Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a fearless female fleeing across the desert with a group of sex slaves hidden in her big rig. She’s just freed them from Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a ruthless tyrant who wants his breeders back, especially Splendid (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), since she’s pregnant and may be carrying his first male heir.

The enraged warlord has dispatched a caravan of bloodthirsty goons who will stop at nothing to retrieve his so-called “wives.”

Fortunately, Max agrees to join forces with Furiosa when he learns of their plight. They plan to drive across the desert to “The Green Place,” a Shangri-La rumored to be teeming with water, vegetation, and other scarce natural resources. But to get there our hero and heroine must negotiate a gauntlet of evil adversaries driving dune buggies that are fitted with a variety of deadly military hardware.

An edge-of-your-seat high body-count movie that is riveting from start to finish despite the lack of any plot development.

Excellent (****). Rated R for disturbing images and relentless, intense violence. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

May 6, 2015

book revIt was like playing in a ghost town. — Baltimore pitcher Zach Britton

You’ve heard of the Ship without a Crew. Last Wednesday it was the Game without a Crowd, Camden Yards entering the Twilight Zone as the man who wrote “The Raven” put his stamp on the Field of Dreams. For the first time in history, a Major League game was played with the fans locked out. Of those nine innings in a vacuum, what should have been a dramatic high point, the moment Chris Davis of the Orioles hit a long home run, produced only a small, quick, brittle sound instantly buried in silence (“But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token”) as the white speck disappeared from view, landing on Eutaw Street a few blocks from the spot where in the early fall of 1849 Edgar Allan Poe was found lying on the pavement, delirious, in mortal distress, outside Gunner’s Hall tavern.

The official explanation for the bizarre state of affairs in Baltimore is that the gates to Oriole Field had been closed to protect fans from the “civil unrest” set off when Freddie Gray died in police custody. Or perhaps, as I prefer to think, Poe’s perturbed spirit whispered the idea in the ears of the mayor, the owners of the Orioles, and the commissioner of Major League Baseball. That might help explain grotesqueries such as the recorded singing of the National Anthem into the “quaint and curious” void and the organist playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for the benefit of 46,000 empty seats during the seventh inning stretch.

Locked Out of the Hall

The idea of organized baseball denying entrance to its fans has ironic resonance if you’ve been reading Princeton resident Mort Zachter’s Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life (University of Nebraska Press $34.95), about a great player and manager who has been denied entrance to Cooperstown. Eminently qualified players like Pete Rose and Mark Maguire have been excluded because they did not live “Hall of Fame” lives while Gil Hodges did just that. As Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci says of Zachter’s book, “In these pages you understand how Hodges defined what it meant to be a role model in a golden age.”

It’s reported that the foul balls retrieved from the empty seats at last week’s fanless affair were collected for the Hall along with other relics. Thus do the gatekeepers of a domain built for the fans enshrine a surreal event that could serve for a painting illustrating the ignominious effects of the 1994 strike. So it goes: baseball trivia finds a place in Cooperstown but not the man who hit 370 home runs and managed the Miracle Mets.

Ebbets Field

The empty stadium in Baltimore also has elements in common with the fate inflicted on the Dodgers faithful following the 1957 season a mere two years after Brooklyn’s first and only world championship. The forces that shut down Ebbets Field violated a neighborhood gathering place where some of baseball nation’s  most colorful crowds convened every summer for the better part of a half century, until the owners absconded to the West Coast with the beloved Bums.

The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn’s classic memoir of Brooklyn and baseball, put the depth of the loss into words: “Ebbets Field was a narrow cockpit, built of brick and iron and concrete, alongside a steep cobblestone slope of Bedford Avenue. Two tiers of grandstand pressed the playing area from three sides, and in thousands of seats fans could hear a ball player’s chatter, notice details of a ball player’s gait and … see the actual expression on the actual face of an actual major leaguer as he played. You could know what he was like!”

Hodges Was Here!

Mort Zachter grew up haunted by the ghost of a field without a game, a city without a team. The first sentence of his preface states the specifics: “I was born in Brooklyn four months, twelve days, and six hours after the Brooklyn Dodgers played their last game at Ebbets Field.” Clearly he was also born to write the life of the only Dodger star who “still called Brooklyn home after the team moved to Los Angeles” and “lived a few blocks away from where I grew up. Every morning as I walked to my elementary school, PS 197, I crossed Bedford Avenue and looked north in the direction of Hodges’s home, proud that he had stayed.”

Hodges was “a visible figure in the neighborhood” and “could be seen walking his dog, a German Shepherd named Lady Gina, down Bedford Avenue or stopping by Gil Hodges Field on McDonald Avenue to watch the kids play, or buying Marlboros at Benny’s Candy store on Avenue M.” The reference to Marlboros stings a bit once you learn that Hodges was a heavy smoker who would die of a heart attack in 1972, at age 47. Zachter ends the preface recalling how “if you walked into Benny’s candy store shortly after Hodges had left, you could hear the owner…in a voice so filled with excitement you would have thought the Dodgers had just moved back to Brooklyn, saying over and over again, ‘Hodges was just here, Hodges was just here, Hodges was just here.’ “

The Face

The cover of Zachter’s book features a close-up of Hodges, the rough, grizzled, middle-aged manager of the Mets, frowning, intense, eyes narrowed, chin propped in his clasped hands. Tom Clavin and Danny Peary’s 2012 biography, on the other hand, shows Hodges the Brooklyn Dodger slugger in his prime, blue-eyed and young, bat poised, face free of lines except for the furrowed brow, his gaze fixed on the pitcher. The pose reminds me of the color portraits of players I used to paste in scrapbooks. My devotion to the Dodgers’s arch rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, didn’t rule out a 10-year-old fan’s fondness for other stars. While my feeling for Hodges centered on his resemblance to the ultimate Cardinal Stan Musial (two role-model-worthy coal miner’s sons with lopsided grins), what clinched it was knowing he’d grown up in southern Indiana, like me. The fact that his birthplace was a town called Princeton meant nothing at the time, of course, but now that I’ve spent most of my adult life in another Princeton, I can’t help smiling when Zachter refers to young Gil “on the playing fields of Princeton,” or when I read that as Hodges’s casket was being carried out of a Brooklyn church the organist played “Back Home in Indiana,” just as the Ebbets Field organist did every time he hit a home run.

The Manager

A further absurdity concerning Hodges’s exclusion from the Hall of Fame is that by all rights his career as a star on one of baseball’s most storied teams should have been enough, all by itself, to save him a place there with his teammates Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and Roy Campanella. Yet on top of that, he led the hitherto cosmically hapless New York Mets to their miracle, the winning of the 1969 National League pennant the vanquishing in five games of the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Though few Brooklyn fans accepted the notion that the Mets could ever in any way take the place of their Bums, what Hodges had accomplished in his brief term as manager was like a microcosm of a half-century of Dodger history, a team that went from being the joke of the National League, a perennial loser, to a dominant force.

Hodges the manager is shown in action in Zachter’s prologue, “His Reputation Preceded Him.” As the title suggests, it was the big man’s stature, along with his “reputation for integrity” and the fact that he’d always treated umpires with respect (one of the rare players who had never been thrown out of a game) that enabled him to convince Lou DiMuro to reverse a crucial call in what proved to be the turning point of the fifth and deciding game of 1969 World Series against the Orioles. As Zachter describes it, “Hodges didn’t yell or scream. He didn’t have to. It was all measured and calculated—even the modulation in his deep voice.”

The Voice

There are references to the persuasive power of Hodges’s voice all through A Hall of Fame Life, one of the most powerful examples being the night in Washington D.C. when he talked a player out of suicide. This was when Hodges was managing the lowly Washington Senators and one of his best pitchers, Ryne Duren, drunk and despondent, had climbed to the top of a bridge over the gorge on Connecticut Avenue and was threatening to kill himself. Zachter quotes from Duren’s autobiography describing how Hodges came to the bridge with the police and told him, in that voice, “You’re too good to do this to yourself.” As Zachter relates in the epilogue, Ryne Duren “overcame his demons, stopped drinking, and worked to help other athletes with their addictions” before he died in 2011.

I wonder what Gil Hodges, the “role model in a golden age,” would make of last week’s strange doings in Camden Yards. Most likely he would join the city, the owners, and the commissioner in opting for caution over tradition. Still, it’s possible to imagine him seeing the empty stadium as a symbolic defeat, a surrender to death in life over what might have been a validation of baseball’s right to be called the National Pastime. Perhaps he would have told the powers that be, in that voice of his, “You’re too good to do this to yourself.”

TARASCON STAGECOACH: Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 painting will be back in Princeton this fall when it will be showcased in the exhibition “Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection,” opening in September at the Princeton University Art Museum. The painting, which has been held by the art museum since 1976, has recently been on tour with other 19th and 20th century masterworks by the likes of Cézanne, Degas, Manet, and Modigliani. The Princeton University Art Museum is open to the public at no charge. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. For more information, call (609) 258-3788 or visit: artmuseum.princeton.edu.

TARASCON STAGECOACH: Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 painting will be back in Princeton this fall when it will be showcased in the exhibition “Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection,” opening in September at the Princeton University Art Museum. The painting, which has been held by the art museum since 1976, has recently been on tour with other 19th and 20th century masterworks by the likes of Cézanne, Degas, Manet, and Modigliani. The Princeton University Art Museum is open to the public at no charge. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. For more information, call (609) 258-3788 or visit: artmuseum.princeton.edu.

A major exhibition of masterworks by Cézanne, Degas, Manet, Modigliani, and Van Gogh will be on view at the Princeton University Art Museum from September 12, through January 3, 2016.

The exhibition, “Cézanne and the Modern: Masterpieces of European Art from the Pearlman Collection,” will feature works collected by American businessman Henry Pearlman (1895–1974) in the years after the Second World War. Fifty modern masterworks from the late 19th through the early 20th century will be on view.

Princeton is the concluding venue for the exhibition, organized by the Princeton University Art Museum in cooperation with the Henry and Rose Pearlman Foundation, and the culmination of the first international tour of the entire collection since Henry Pearlman’s death 40 years ago.

The exhibition showcases works by leading Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and School of Paris artists, including Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Amedeo Modigliani and Chaïm Soutine, as well as the collection’s centerpiece: a stellar group of oil paintings and watercolors by Pearlman’s favorite artist, Paul Cézanne.

“We are proud to have been the custodians of this superb collection since 1976, and now to have shared the collection with venues in four countries,” said James Steward, Nancy A. Nasher-David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, director. “Its return to Princeton is an auspicious moment, marking the first time in decades that our visitors will have the opportunity to discover the whole of the collection at one time, and thus to appreciate the Pearlmans’ passion for some of the 19th and 20th centuries’ most important artists.”

Among the exhibition’s highlights are Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire (ca. 1904–6), Van Gogh’s Tarascon Stagecoach (1888) and Modigliani’s portrait of Jean Cocteau (1916). The Pearlman Collection is especially known for an exceptional group of intimate works: 16 watercolors by Cézanne, forming perhaps the finest collection in the world in terms of their quality and condition, as well as the continuing freshness of their colors. Due to the delicacy of the medium, the watercolors can be shown only rarely, so this is likely to be the only opportunity for decades to see them in the context of Cézanne’s oils. Other artists represented in the exhibition include Gustave Courbet, Honoré Daumier, Oskar Kokoschka, Wilhelm Lembruck, Jacques Lipchitz, Édouard Manet, Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

A richly illustrated catalogue, published by the Princeton University Art Museum and distributed by Yale University Press, accompanies the exhibition.

The Princeton University Art Museum is located on Princeton campus; admission is free. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. The Museum is closed Mondays and major holidays.

———

Opera popularity is often in reverse chronological order. Much is made of contemporary works, the most popular of the genre date from the 19th century, and enthusiasm has grown for Baroque opera in recent years. One does not often get the opportunity to hear the “Big Daddy” of them all — Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, which upon its debut in 1607, set opera on its course to what we know today. Thanks to the continuing generosity of Scheide Concerts, Princeton was able to hear the best of the best last Wednesday night as the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists presented L’Orfeo in Richardson Auditorium.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir have spent the last half century exploring the depths of choral music from throughout history, including performing 198 Bach sacred cantatas in Europe. Most recently, the choir has turned its attention to Monteverdi, who changed the course of music history with his staged works, sacred choral music, and secular madrigals. Last year, the Monteverdi Choir celebrated its 50th anniversary performing Monteverdi’s towering 1610 Vespro della Beata Virgine, and this year has been touring L’Orfeo. With this opera, accompanied by the English Baroque Soloists (which Mr. Gardiner also founded), the Monteverdi Choir showed an incredibly rich level of talent within the ensemble.

In his commentary on Wednesday night’s performance, Mr. Gardiner wrote that he views L’Orfeo as a “secular sibling” of the 1610 Vespers. At the turn of the 17th century, opera was emerging from a combination of musical intermedios and stage plays; just seven years before L’Orfeo, Jacopo Peri composed the first official “opera,” also based on the Orpheus and Euridice story. With L’Orfeo, Monteverdi put opera on the map, with his expansive five-act production appearing throughout Italy and inspiring a new generation of composers. Even with this first opera, Monteverdi tested the limits of harmony and sonority at the time, using word-painting and a smooth synthesis of recitative and aria to support the opera’s text and drama.

The soloists for the Monteverdi Choir’s performance, who came from within the choral ensemble, were immediately up to speed with Monteverdi’s style of setting narrative to music. Four Shepherds — tenors Andrew Tortise and Gareth Treseder, alto James Hall, and bass David Shipley — all declaimed recitative text with speed, accuracy, and vocal weight suitable to the period of music. Mr. Hall sang with a rich vibrato in the counter-tenor register, and Mr. Tortise excelled at the voice of reason in a second act recitative. The two tenor shepherds were particularly clean in the climbing harmonies of a later duet.

One of the few female soloists in the opera, soprano Francesca Aspromonte sang the role of the opening narrator Musica with vocal sparkle and a great deal of character to set up the story. Ms. Aspromonte accompanied herself on the guitar in her opening musical monologue, enabling her to draw out the drama in the text. Ms. Aspromonte returned later in the role as Euridice, singing the role with nymph-like flirtation and always being dramatic within the style of the music.

As Orfeo, tenor Krystian Adam sang recitative passages like spoken dialogue, and as a somewhat dark and brooding character, sang the particularly dramatic arias with passion. Mr. Adam was able to shift moods easily, nimbly handling spirited and highly rhythmic passages as well as the lyrical and sensitive love songs.

The English Baroque Soloists provided solid accompaniment to the opera, with the addition of multiple lutes to the string and wind orchestra. The orchestra seemed to be divided into two ensembles: one of strings and lutes and the other of winds and lutes. Playing in Baroque style, the strings were not as loud as modern strings, which required the audience to listen more carefully. A trio of recorders enabled the orchestra to bridge the Renaissance and Baroque musical eras. The Monteverdi Choir sang with as full a sound as any sacred work of Bach, yet was able to be nimble and sprightly as an ensemble of “nymphs and shepherds.”

Wednesday night’s performance was the last concert William Scheide planned with great anticipation of hearing the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists. Early opera maintained an emphasis on spectacular scenic effects; although there were no special effects in this production of L’Orfeo, the enthusiasm of the performers and diversity of talent among the performers was a visual effect in itself in an evening of great entertainment and high quality performance.

FAIRY TALES CAN COME TRUE, IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU: When she wins the lottery, Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) a woman with bipolar disorder suddenly finds herself with enough money to make her dream of hosting a TV show like Oprah’s come true.(Photo by Suzanne Hanover

FAIRY TALES CAN COME TRUE, IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU: When she wins the lottery, Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) a woman with bipolar disorder suddenly finds herself with enough money to make her dream of hosting a TV show like Oprah’s come true. (Photo by Suzanne Hanover)

Let’s say you’re a diehard Oprah fan who has always wanted to have your own television series just like Oprah. What would you do if you won the lottery and suddenly had enough money to turn that dream into a reality?

That’s what happened to Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) when she won $86 million in the California Stacks Sweepstakes. The trouble is that she suffers from bipolar disorder and deludes herself into believing that now that she’s rich she no longer needs drugs.

So, she informs her psychiatrist (Tim Robbins) that she’s going off her medications and then offers him a bribe to give her a clean bill of health. Next, she approaches Rich, the general manager (James Marsden) of a TV station that specializes in infomercials, about buying air time for the talk show about herself that she wants to host.

Concerned about his struggling network’s bottom line, Rich gives his okay as soon as Alice gives him the $15 million needed to underwrite the project. His brother and business partner (Wes Bentley) is less enthusiastic about taking advantage of Alice until she proceeds to seduce him.

Since she’s the topic of every episode, Alice appropriately names the program “Welcome to Me.” The themes for the programs range from titles like “Jordana Spangler – a Liar,” “Matching Colors to Emotions,” “Lucky Foods,” “I Can Still Smell You,” and “Regulating Your Moods with a High-Protein Diet.” The only thing they have in common is that they focus on some aspect of the narcissistic emcee’s life.

The emotional exhibitionism proves compelling enough to improve ratings and Alice proceeds to self-destruct in front of her audience who can’t get enough of her no matter what she’s discussing. But at $150,000 per episode, it’s obvious that she’s eventually going to have a crash-landing .

Directed by Shira Piven, Welcome to Me is a droll dramatic comedy that is made for the comedic style of Kristen Wiig. Alternately vulnerable and bizarre, but always endearing, this movie is the Saturday Night Live (SNL) alumna’s best since Bridesmaids.

Kudos to Kristen for baring herself, literally and figuratively, and for delivering a performance that could easily have degenerated into the sort of slapstick she did on SNL.

Excellent (****). Rated R for sexuality, profanity, graphic nudity, and brief drug use. Running time: 87 minutes. Distributor: Alchemy.

April 29, 2015

record revSomeone should write a blues for the lonely offline souls suddenly bereft of all access, thwarted by codes, passwords, various unknowns. One minute you have the lyrics to Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” at your fingertips, next thing you know all the song’s “very gay places, those come what may places” have been denied you, and if you can’t get on “the wheel of life,” how can you get “the feel of life” when the lines are down? If you want to bounce some ideas off a friend in the U.K. at 3 in the morning — he’s not there. If you want to find when “Lush Life” was first recorded and by whom, you can’t. Above all, if you want to get your train of thought moving toward the subject of Duke Ellington, whose birthday is today, and Billy Strayhorn, whose centenary is 2015, the wheels are locked, you’re grounded, shut down, the column grinds to a halt — until the light-bulb of a simple truth goes on in some cobwebbed corner of the brain and a little voice says, “Try unplugging it, stupid.” And so you do, and when you plug it back in, your train is moving and the world is yours again.

Sinatra Gave Up

Back online you can choose to enjoy any one of a dozen renditions of “Lush Life.” If you want someone here and now, like Lady Gaga, she’s yours, instantly, or you can have Linda Ronstadt or Nat King Cole and his daughter Natalie or maybe you prefer Billy Eckstein or John Coltrane with or without Johnny Hartman, or, at last, Strayhorn’s own naked voicing of a composition that has been said to contain “the entire jazz project.”

Songfacts.com says that while there are over 500 covers of “Lush Life,” there’s nothing from the man born to sing it, Frank Sinatra.

Which brings into play an example of the resources abounding online — should you want to make sure that Sinatra never actually did put the song on final vinyl, all it takes is a little looking and you can hear what happened in the studio the day he threw in the towel (go to bigozine2./Sinatra studio outtakes). Says Sinatra’s arranger Nelson Riddle of the 1958 session, “It’s a rather complicated song, and I think Frank would have been momentarily put off by all the changes that had to go on. Not that he couldn’t have sung it with ease and beautifully had he tried a couple of more times.” It’s too bad, for sure, because there’s enough bold and beautiful singing in these three and a half minutes to suggest that this was exactly the sort of material made for the classic “wee small hours, set ‘em up Joe” incarnation of Sinatra. You can hear him finding it, making love to it, almost living it, only to lose faith when he gets to the heart of the matter, the long-delayed descent to the melody, where he falters, loses patience (“it’s tough enough the way it is”), makes fun of his failure, then kisses it off, shouting “Put it aside for about a year!” as if the song and not the singer had somehow come up short. Stranger still, of all the music Strayhorn brought to Ellington over the years, from “Take the ‘A’ Train” on, “Lush Life” never found a place in the repertoire.

Word-Pictures

My next online adventure, courtesy of YouTube, is “The Mystery Song,” recorded by Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra in Camden, N.J., June 17, 1931. As soon as I keyboard the title, I’m head down in a vintage Orthophonic Victrola, close enough to kiss the ornate black Victor label on the original 78 with the image of the dog bending an ear to the gramophone. Meanwhile a disembodied hand appears on the right side of the iMac screen, hits a switch to set the platter spinning and down I go again, deep in a delirium of spinning shellac on the cloudy-shiny lustrous blackness wherein lies every crackling, clicking, hissing, imperfectly perfect second of otherwordly Ellingtonian rapture. You could say the sounds are dated, as in a dream of Harlem played by a ghostly orchestra, yet the strains of the main theme could serve as well as Nino Rota’s Via-Veneto night music for the world weary crowd caught on the “axis of the wheel of life “in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

Who else on or offline can create word-pictures to compare with the Duke’s? Who else would Samuel Taylor Coleridge turn to were he looking to set “Kubla Khan” or the “Ancient Mariner” to music? An absurd idea, of course, as though something as unimaginable as the internet were available to S.T.C. in his Nether Stowey lime-tree bower in 1798, but say it had been, he’d have called up Ellington’s “East St Louis Toodle-oo” from 1927, where the medium for the Mariner’s halting, hypnotic tale is Bubber Miley and his growling prowling curses and cadenzas, while swirling all around “the greybeard loon” is the sound of swooning seamen and seasick listeners, as in a drugged-out Harlem seance. And for “woman wailing for her demon lover” S.T.C. would have conjured Johnny Hodges and Strayhorn to score the opium backstory of the greatest poem never written.

Channeling M.H. Abrams

All these allusions to the Romantic-period are a way of paying homage to the Norton Anthology of English Literature and its scholar editor M.H. Abrams, who died last week at 102. If this column were worthy, it would be dedicated to his memory.

I still have my road-worn, lived-in copy of the great book, and turning to the Coleridge pages at random, I see immediate intimations of Strayhorn in “A little child, a limber elf,/Singing, dancing to itself,/A fairy thing with red round cheeks,/That always finds and never seeks.” And then I come to the “numberless goings-on of life,/Inaudible as dreams” in “Frost at Midnight” where “the thin blue flame/Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not …/the sole unquiet thing” whose “motion in this hush of nature/Gives it dim sympathies …/Making it a companionable form.” My intention, by the way, is not to coyly reference Strayhorn’s homosexuality but to see him as Ellington did in naming him Sweet Pea after Popeye’s infant, and to get the sense of dim companionable sympathies projected by moody ballads like “Lush Life,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Prelude to a Kiss.”

Now turn two Norton pages farther to “Dejection: An Ode” before or after listening to Ellington numbers like “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Harlem Air-Shaft” and “Memlick: The Lion of Judah,” and you find “viper thoughts, that coil round my mind,/Reality’s dark dream” and “the wind/Which long has raved unnoticed./What a scream/Of agony by torture lengthened out/That lute sent forth” and “Mad lutanist! …/Thou actor, perfect in all tragic sounds!/Thou mighty poet, e’en to frenzy bold!/… But hush! there is a pause of deepest silence!/And all that noise, as of a rushing crowd/With groans and tremulous shudderings — all is over ….”

“Dejection” evolved from a letter to the love of Coleridge’s life, Sara Hutchinson, written from the ruins of his marriage, where the quarrels were surely the equal of the domestic brawls being played out in “Harlem Air-Shaft,” and of course the down-to-the dives descent of Lush Life”: “Ah yes! I was wrong/Again,/I was wrong” and “Life is lonely again/… I’ll forget you, I will/While yet you are still burning inside my brain.”

Strayhorn and Shakespeare

If the association of Ellington and English literature seems a stretch, it should be remembered that Shakespeare was the subject of one of the most ambitious of the Ellington-Strayhorn collaborations, Such Sweet Thunder, the title taken from Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder.” After pointing out a discord in one of his compositions, Ellington said, “That’s the Negro’s life …. Dissonance is our way of life in America.”

In an NPR interview about Such Sweet Thunder, jazz critic A.B. Spellman described the 12-part suite based on the plays and sonnets as “one of the most remarkable orchestral pieces in all of American music,” in which Ellington and Strayhorn “gave great attention to the material of Shakespeare and tried to make pictures that would take you into the mood.” As for Strayhorn’s acquaintance with the Bard, Spellman says he “was deep into Shakespeare” and “could quote whole sections of plays” and “vast numbers of sonnets from memory, at the drop of a hat” while understanding it all “very, very well.”

Strays as Ariel

There are some choice insights about Ellington and Strayhorn in Clark, the 2011 memoir by the late Clark Terry, that most Puckish of players, who, no surprise, was Ellington’s choice to “play” Puck in Such Sweet Thunder. “Talked through my horn,” as Terry puts it. “A way of speaking and playing at the same time.” Duke, he recalls, “was also a great poet” who “used a lot of unusually creative language.” One tune Terry “loved” to hear Ellington announce was Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower,” the way Duke said, “A passion flower is one that is more enjoyed than discussed.”

The free flights of Strayhorn cited in Terry’s book suggest that if anyone was the Puck to Ellington’s Oberon, or the Ariel to his Prospero, it was Strayhorn: “Strays was a man who lived the most unique life style …. He had no bills: no hotel bills, no apartment bills, no food bills, no clothes or tax bills. No nothing. He didn’t have a salary either. He just signed a tab. Duke paid for everything.”

If Strays “decided that he wanted to go to Paris and have breakfast, he’d just get on a plane — fly to Paris and have breakfast and come back …. And Duke paid for it all. It was as though their partnership was made in heaven. Although they rarely communicated directly on the bandstand or in the studio, they understood each other. Like they could read each other’s minds.”

So assuming you’re online, or within reach of the magic, as I thankfully am, you can see Ellington and Strayhorn in person, when Duke presents his alter ego for the evening’s encore, surrendering the piano and the spotlight to the bespectacled, studious-looking, casually attired man (in contrast to members of the band), who plays a strong, studious solo on “Take the A-Train,” the song that was his first and greatest gift to his Prospero.

At the end, Ellington coaxes applause with a waving motion as he declaims Strayhorn’s name one, two, three times and after it the names of some of his gifts, “Take the A Train!  Passion Flower!  Chelsea Bridge!”

Opera is a complex musical genre, and sometimes simplicity is the best approach. This past weekend, Boheme Opera NJ used simplicity to its advantage in its production of Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème, presented Friday night and Sunday afternoon at The College of New Jersey. Boheme Opera NJ brought together a cast of experienced and polished singers to make the most of an opera which did not have the best of premieres, but which has become a favorite of the repertory since then.

La Bohème premiered in 1896, when Puccini was at the height of his popularity, but reception to the initial performance was mediocre at best. Audiences found the storylines “inconsequential,” but the 100 or so intervening years have endeared the stories of the four “Bohemians” and the tragic Mimi to opera fans worldwide. Based on an Henri Murger novel, which in turn incorporated characters modeled on real individuals, La Bohème brought these characters to life with Puccini’s rich melodies and lush harmonies.

The four “Bohemians” — poet Rodolfo, painter Marcello, philosopher Colline, and musician Schaunard — have struggled to survive on little money in their Paris loft. To some extent a 19th-century operatic version of Friends, La Bohème follows these four characters and their two principal love interests — Mimi and Musetta. In Friday night’s production, artistic director and conductor Joseph Pucciatti updated the time to 2014, complete with laptop computer props and costumes of jeans and leather jackets. The time may have changed, but the challenges of starving artists have endured, and with a few tweaks to the dialogue, Boheme Opera NJ’s production remained close to Puccini’s original.

Musically, the unusual aspect to the four principal male characters is their voicing. Puccini scored Marcello and Schaunard as baritones and Colline as a bass, saving the tenor voice for Rodolfo, whose ill-fated romance with soprano Mimi forms the dramatic core of the opera. Baritones Eric Dubin (Marcello) and Charles Schneider (Schaunard) were very similar vocally, sounding almost indiscernible when singing together. Mr. Dubin was a bit hard to hear at times over the orchestra, but when called for, soared over the accompaniment. Mr. Schneider played the role of Schaunard with good character, lyrically singing about the mundane details of everyday life. Bass Martin Hargrove proved time and time again the richness of his voice as Colline, especially commanding the stage in the fourth act soliloquy aria Vecchia zimarra. However, by the time Colline decides to sacrifice his favorite coat for the sake of heroine Mimi, it is too late for the fragile seamstress, sung by Erica Strauss.

Ms. Strauss has a solid background in 19th-century opera, including performances with the Metropolitan Opera. She was in total control of the role, proving that she could float high notes well, spinning the sound until the ends of the phrases. Her chemistry with Rodolfo, sung by tenor Benjamin Warschawski was solid, as Mr. Warschawski sang with such ease that one felt his voice could go on forever. He sang his first act aria, Che gelida manina, to Mimi with tender affection, making the most of a tenor range which Puccini used for dramatic impact. Marcello’s love interest Musetta, sung by soprano Sungji Kim, came onstage in Act II as a saucy and presumptuous character, and took the stage immediately with a real vocal edge to her sound. Ms. Kim’s waltz aria Quand m’en vo quickly endeared her to the audience as she lured Marcello into her web.

To accompany the opera, Joseph Pucciatti had assembled a full orchestral ensemble which, although overwhelming the singers at times, kept the musical pace moving along. In return, the lead singers were exact in their rhythms with the players. Boheme Opera NJ has established a new relationship with Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart to provide singers for the children’s chorus, which Erin Camburn had well prepared to sing cleanly and energetically. Digital set designer J. Matthew Root made simplicity work on the stage of the Kendall Theater, with a few pieces of furniture creating a complete scene, aided by a digital screen providing simple but elegant graphics of starlight, snow, and other backdrops.

Boheme Opera NJ is celebrating its 26th anniversary of presenting two full operas each year. Producing opera is a complicated and expensive venture, but in its new home at The College of New Jersey, Boheme Opera should find performance life comfortable.