April 3, 2013

AlgonquinWe went to the Algonquin for lunch …. We sat in a big round booth built into the wall that felt cozy like a clubhouse.

—Margaret Salinger

 

I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure I was the only person on the packed-to-the-gills Manhattan-bound Jersey Transit train who was reading a 57-year-old paperback edition of J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. Aside from the fact that I still spend time rereading Salinger’s fiction while still foolishly looking forward to that legendary trove of unpublished work (hey, it’s only been, what, 47 years?), my choice made perfect sense. We were on our way to a night at the Algonquin, the crown jewel of New York’s literary hotels, where Salinger and his then-editor at the New Yorker, Gus Lobrano, often met to talk about these selfsame stories, all but one of which first appeared in the pages of that magazine. And when the reclusive author made forays into the city from his New Hampshire sanctuary, he would revisit the hotel for lunch with his New Yorker pals William Shawn and Lillian Ross. If you have any doubt about the symbiotic relationship between the magazine and the hotel, take a look at the decor on the hall outside your room and you’ll see framed New Yorker covers from the golden years and framed vintage New Yorker cartoons.

In the time-honored tradition of hotel guests everywhere, I came home with some souvenirs, but you can be sure that this is the only hotel that provides a blue cocktail napkin bearing a quote from playwright George S. Kaufman (“When I was born I owed twelve dollars”); a note pad illustrated with an Al Hirschfeld caricature of the Round Table crowd; a postcard of Natalie Ascendios’s painting of Dorothy Parker and “The Vicious Circle”; and a handsome postcard portrait of Matilda, the hotel’s resident feline. And if you are someone who writes every single day of your life, how can you resist bringing home a card for maid service that says Quiet, Please. Writing the Great American Novel on one side and Service Please. Went Out to Find Some New Ideas on the other.

I almost forgot to mention the Algonquin stationery I made off with. As if anyone could forget the item that at the moment most famously represents this hotel’s intimate connection with literary greatness. You read about it just the other day in the March 27 New York Times article, “Faulkner’s Past Isn’t Dead Yet: You Can Buy It at Auction,” which reports that the sheet of Algonquin stationery on which William Faulkner wrote the first draft of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech is among the pieces of his undead past expected to fetch between $500,000 and $1 million in a June auction at Sotheby’s.

Room 512

We’d always heard that the rooms at the Algonquin were, uh, well, you know, small, and Room 512 was no exception. The fact is, however, that small, cleverly set-up rooms are preferable to big impersonal spaces if you’ve come to the Algonquin hoping to spend quality time in the proximity of the luminaries who have stayed, are staying, and will always stay there. Speaking of Faulkner, you’re also that much closer to the author of Light in August, particularly if you’ve read of his lifelong devotion to the hotel and of the binges he slept off in one or another of its 170-plus rooms. According to various biographies, including Faulkner at 100: Retrospect and Prospect, the novelist was in New York during the fall of 1937 trying to finish The Wild Palms when the woman he’d been having an affair with abandoned him to marry a concert pianist. As a result, he went on “an enormous bender” and “passed out in his hotel room at the Algonquin, with his bare back against a radiator steam pipe, and suffered third degree burns.” The wound was slow to heal, had to be skin-grafted, and made it impossible for him to sit and type for more than an hour at a time. On his next visit to New York, Faulkner resumed seeing the woman for liasions at the Algonquin, where they apparently resumed the affair.

You don’t need a plaque on the wall saying Faulkner made love or suffered or wrote in Room 512. What matters is knowing that by reading, sleeping, passing time in his favorite hotel you’re entering into a literary continuum housed by the Algonquin, and should you doubt it, the image of Matilda, the most recent incarnation of the resident Algonquin cat, is posted on the door to your room with a quote from a typically scathing Dorothy Parker review: “This is not a novel that should be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” The room service breakfast menu contains this choice tidbit from the inimitable Mrs. Parker: “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.” Walk into the corridor to take the elevator, and you see that every door has its quote from this or that Round Table wit, along with the aforementioned framed reproductions of New Yorker covers and cartoons.

Remembering

Until last Saturday the only time I’d visited the Algonquin was many years ago for an interview with veteran newspaperman Harry Hansen. All I have to jog my memory of that occasion is a Chicago Tribune article (“A Young Hoosier Author Looks at Writing Game”) that begins, “A studious young man of 20 was talking quietly about the way books get written, in a room where, 36 years before, F. Scott Fitzgerald had aired similar views.” Hansen sets the stage (“It was the cocktail hour at the Algonquin”), noting that “a member of the junior class at Indiana University” was getting “his first glimpse of the red carpet and stained walls that had seen hundred of authors lift a drink in times past.” That was it. I remember neither the carpet nor the walls nor anything else, but my wife does, having met with authors there a number of times over the years in her capacity as an editor at Rutgers University Press. This was her first visit since the recent refurbishment, and though the infrastructure is the same (dark oak woodwork, grandfather clock, black cast-iron stairs), she misses the overstuffed chairs and sofas and other pieces of atmosphere-saturated furniture that made it possible to at least imagine being in touch with authors and editors from the hotel’s Round Table prime. She also misses the miniature four-poster bed near the front of the lobby occupied by the resident Matilda, as all female cats since the 1930s were named; it was Hamlet for the males, thanks to John Barrymore, who named the first stray to cross the threshold.

Regardless of the updated furnishings, the Algonquin aura was all around us when we had breakfast in the lobby with the Ascendios painting of Dorothy Parker and the gang at the Round Table for company (including an upside-down Matilda), not to mention thoughtful service from the Algonquin staff. The legend continued in the Blue Bar with its framed Hirschfeld caricatures of show biz and literary stars, among them Princeton’s Bebe Neuwirth in Chicago.

Lost Time on 35th

That time and memory would figure so prominently during our day in the city was inevitable, and not merely because the first place we went after arriving at Penn Station was to the Morgan exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. The Morgan also happens to be in close proximity to the church where we were married a longlost time ago, with a statue of St. Francis looking on, and one of the running jokes of our marriage is that neither of us is ever quite sure which street it’s located on. I said I was sure it was 32nd Street, my wife doubted it, and as we came to within a block of the Morgan, she pointed toward a nondescript structure halfway down 35th Street. Can’t be, said I. Is, said she. We checked, and what do you know, she was right; she usually is.

Proust and Degas

Like our room at the Algonquin, the Swann’s Way exhibit, on view through April 28, was small but striking, a Parisian extension of the continuum marked by a quote from Abbé Mugnier: “Proust? No one is less dead than he is.” We followed the course of his writing life, from ideas scribbled in the tall, slender, elegant cahiers, then the larger student exercise tablets, then the school exam book where he jotted down subjects for Swann’s Way and sketched a bird at the top of one page and at the bottom a slender female presumed to be Albertine. By the time we got to the actual correction-ravaged typescripts, we could see the Abbé’s meaning in the work’s labyrinthine additions and vehement deletions.

On the Morgan’s second floor there’s a fascinating exhibit on view through May 13, focused on a single work by Degas, Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando (1879), his only painting with a circus setting.

A Salinger Moment

In the Jersey Transit waiting room at Penn Station and on the train home, I started reading J.D. Salinger’s For Esmé with Love and Squalor” in my Signet paperback of Nine Stories. The pages are yellowed, faded, and fragrant with the cozy scent of the same cheap paper comicbooks were made of, and it’s pleasant to think back on our night at the Algonquin and to imagine that Salinger and Gus Lobrano met there to talk about this story that never fails to charm and move me and that apparently had the same effect on the many readers who wrote him letters about it after its appearance in the April 8, 1950 New Yorker. We were on the train home when I finished “For Esmé.” As I looked up from the book, I saw a little girl effortlessly forming words on the fluid surface of the iPad being held by her mother, who smiled to see me admiring the beauty of a child seemingly writing on air, and when the mother saw my book, she smiled again, a little sadly, as if she knew the story I’d just read, with its flawless, subtly felt picture of two children, a brother and sister, in  a dark time. Or maybe she was only smiling at the oddity of anyone in 2013 reading a 47-year-old paperback. Any way you looked at it, it was a Salinger moment.

COOKING SCHOOL: Mel Leipzig’s acrylic on canvas painting,“The Cooking Teachers,” features from left: Frank Benowitz and Doug Fee of the Hotel, Restaurant and Institution Management program at Mercer County Community College. Mr. Leipzig, who has taught at MCCC since 1968, will presents “Portrait of a College” at Mercer County Community College’s Trenton Campus on Wednesday, April 10 at noon in Kerney Hall, 102 North Broad Street. For more information, visit www.mccc.edu.

COOKING SCHOOL: Mel Leipzig’s acrylic on canvas painting,“The Cooking Teachers,” features from left: Frank Benowitz and Doug Fee of the Hotel, Restaurant and Institution Management program at Mercer County Community College. Mr. Leipzig, who has taught at MCCC since 1968, will presents “Portrait of a College” at Mercer County Community College’s Trenton Campus on Wednesday, April 10 at noon in Kerney Hall, 102 North Broad Street. For more information, visit www.mccc.edu.

Art critic Burton Wasserman once described Mel Leipzig as “New Jersey’s greatest living painter.” Ask anyone at Mercer County Community College (MCCC), where he’s taught since 1968, and you’ll find equally enthusiastic accolades.

Being painted by the professor of Fine Arts and Art History is regarded as an enormous privilege. He’s considered a gem among the faculty.

After teaching there for 45 years, Mr. Leipzig has announced his retirement. “I just want to paint,” says the artist, who turns 78 next month.

“Professor Leipzig has been a treasured member of the Mercer faculty,” says College President Patricia C. Donohue. “Not only has he taught countless numbers of artists who have gone on to professional careers in the arts and to teaching the arts, he’s chosen to make College faculty, staff, and students part of the canvas of his life.”

To say that Mr. Leipzig paints portraits of family and friends hardly does justice to his work or its subjects. This is a unique kind of portraiture, one that captures not only individuals but their entire milieu. He records his subjects relaxing at home, or working in their offices.

His paintings are direct and unsentimental. His peers are the realist figure painters Edward Hopper, Ben Shahn, Alex Katz, Larry Rivers, and Philip Pearlstein.

Mr. Leipzig uses acrylic paints, which are brighter and more intense in color than oils, with a palette that he reduced to four colors: dark blue, dark red, yellow, and white in 1990. His paintings, which are done directly from life, have been described as being “filled with vitality and joy of life.”

Asked what keeps his work fresh over a 60-year career, and the painter replies that he has “an epiphany every ten years or so” that usually brings fresh vigor to his work. In 2008, he changed his approach to working directly with paint on canvas. His recent work is some of his best, he says, singling out a five panel painting of Michael Graves. He’s been doing a lot of diptychs and triptychs recently, painting in situ and working fast, he says.

Although his style has often been described as “photorealist,” Mr. Leipzig doesn’t work from photographs. These days he foregoes even using sketches drawn from life that he would once take back to his studio. In fact, these days, Mr. Leipzig says that his studio is more likely to be his subjects’ homes, where he’ll set up for as long as it takes to complete a painting.

“I studied with abstract painters, so I do a lot of things realists typically don’t,” says the artist, noting that he occasionally distorts perspective and uses white paint that most realists shy away from. “I’m a realist in subject matter, I want to do paintings that are scenes of everyday life; the personal environment reveals a lot about an individual.” Focus on context began, he says, in 1991 with paintings of his son and daughter. “My son’s room was covered in graffiti and my daughters in posters.”

“Great figure painting is always integrated into its background,” says Mr. Leipzig, describing his favorites Manet and Degas as “masters of integrating the figure skillfully into context.”

Community College

In recent years, Mr. Leipzig has included his MCCC colleagues as subjects, featuring images of people in myriad roles in more than 100 portraits of college faculty and staff.

Take for instance his portrait of Frank Benowitz and Doug Fee of the Hotel, Restaurant and Institution Management program at MCCC. They are shown in the space that is so important to them.

“While best known for his painting, he was also MCCC’s specialist in teaching art history,” comments Ms. Donohue. “We will always remember his passion for his teaching and for bringing out the best in his students; everyone here is proud and deeply grateful that Mel chose Mercer as the destination for his professional life,” she says.

With a scholarship to study art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Mr. Leipzig went on to study art at The Cooper Union, at Yale University, and Pratt Institute. He’s had numerous one man shows at museums and institutions and has been featured at the Henoch Gallery in New York City.

His works are part of the permanent collections at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Yale Art Gallery, the National Academy Museum, Cooper Hewitt Museum, New Jersey State Museum, and the White House Collection in Washington, D.C. In 2006, he was elected to the National Academy of Design in New York.

Artist’s Talks

Before he leaves the college, Mr. Leipzig will present two lectures and slide presentations. The first, “Portrait of a College,” takes place at noon, April 10, in the College’s Kerney Hall at 102 North Broad Street in Trenton.

In the second, “A Lifetime Devoted to Painting,” the artist will review his 60-year career from his high school years to the present day, at noon, April 23, in the Communications Building, CM107, on the West Windsor campus, 1200 Old Trenton Road. This will be his last lecture before retirement.

Both lectures are free and open to the public. For more information, call (609) 570-3324 or visit www.mccc.edu/events.

ACTING EXERCISES/LIFE LESSONS: Marty (Ava Geyer, facing us) presides over the adult creative drama class that turns out to offer equal parts theatrical training, group therapy, and a study in personalities and relationships, in Theatre Intime’s production of Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” (2009) at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through Saturday, April 6. The ensemble also includes (clockwise from Ms. Geyer) Caroline Slutsky, Anna Aronson, Kanoa Mulling, and John Fairchild.

ACTING EXERCISES/LIFE LESSONS: Marty (Ava Geyer, facing us) presides over the adult creative drama class that turns out to offer equal parts theatrical training, group therapy, and a study in personalities and relationships, in Theatre Intime’s production of Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” (2009) at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through Saturday, April 6. The ensemble also includes (clockwise from Ms. Geyer) Caroline Slutsky, Anna Aronson, Kanoa Mulling, and John Fairchild.

Explosion tag, gibberish dialogue (“goulash, goulash,” “ak mak, ak mak”), memory exercises, sharing secrets, role-playing the personas of others in the class, reenactment of past life events — the setting is an adult creative drama class in the town of Shirley, Vermont. “The point,” the instructor asserts, in explaining their counting-to-ten exercise, “is being able to be totally present. To not get in your head and second-guess yourself. Or the people around you.”

Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation (2009), currently playing at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus, is a low-key, idiosyncratic drama, humorous and also sad, about five individuals, in thirty different scenes over the six-week period of their community center drama class.

“Are we going to be doing any real acting?” a character asks the teacher after the first few weeks. The answer is no, and what transpires is less theatrical training than group therapy, subtle human drama and exploration of life and relationships. Ms. Baker, rising 31-year-old New York playwright, winner of numerous awards with a new play The Flick currently in its premiere Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizon, describes Circle Mirror Transformation as “hopefully, a strange little naturalistic meditation on theater and life and death and the passing of time.”

Winner of two Obie Awards for Best New American Play and Best Ensemble Performance, Circle Mirror Transformation seems to be about the five characters — all lost, all seeking connection — searching for themselves. The “circle mirror transformation” of the title is one of the drama exercises the group engages in, but it also evokes the themes of group interdependence and unity in the circle, of self-confrontation and reflection in the mirror, and of character growth, development, transformation. The back wall of Aryeh Stein-Azen’s skillfully rendered dance studio unit set is, appropriately, a mirror, which helps to create, realistically and thematically, the world of this play.

Ms. Baker’s dialogue is dynamic and convincing. Her characters are believable in their awkwardness, their frustrations, their wants and needs. The acting class proceeds, relationships between the characters develop, and a sort of plot does move forward. The style here though is at times exasperatingly slow, with seemingly very little happening — perhaps resembling the reticent style of Chekhov’s plays more than that of any contemporary playwrights. The major events for these characters have already happened in the past or they happen offstage between the weekly classes. Frequent silences of varying lengths seem to be the trademark of Ms. Baker’s playwriting. Major changes and small revelations in the lives of these characters come to light — subtly, surprisingly, often obliquely, sometimes through those powerful and eloquent silences — during the six class sessions.

Audiences might be divided between those who enjoy the interesting and rich characterizations, the subtle interactions, the silences, and the low-key, ultra-realistic style, and those who feel exasperated at the slow pacing, the pauses, and the frequent scene shifts. Ms. Baker’s The Flick, almost a full hour longer than Circle Mirror Transformation’s intermission-less 120 minutes, has received acclaim from the critics but mixed responses from its New York audiences. Last Friday night’s audience at Theatre Intime’s Circle Mirror Transformation seemed thoroughly engaged and entertained.

The Intime five-person undergraduate ensemble, under the thoughtful, able direction of Princeton University sophomore Annika Bennett, is well rehearsed and committed, but challenged by the difficult age stretches required here.

Ava Geyer as Marty presides over the group with an understated, pensive, almost maternal authority. A warm and sympathetic presence, Marty establishes a significant, positive relationship with each of the students in the class, though her long-time marriage to James (Kanoa Mulling) suffers serious setbacks during the course of the play. Ms. Geyer makes the 35-year character stretch here to create this character and her relationships with appealing sensitivity and credibility.

As her husband, Mr. Mulling is focused and articulate in his love for his wife, his interest in another woman and his difficulties with his grown-up daughter from a previous marriage. But, despite his greyed hair and some obvious aches and pains of a 60-year-old, Mr. Mulling’s youthful demeanor makes this character less than convincing.

Caroline Slutsky as 35-year-old Theresa, who has recently left a bad relationship and an acting career in New York City, successfully portrays a delicate balance of vitality and vulnerability, as she interacts dynamically with each of the other members of the group.

John Fairchild’s 48-year-old Schultz and Anna Aronson’s 16-year-old Lauren complete the ensemble with sympathetic, memorable characterizations. Schultz, in his fragility after a recent divorce and his infatuation with Theresa, and Lauren, in her adolescent shyness, her emergence from a troubled family, and her aspirations to become an actress, both manifest extreme awkwardness and insecurity. Mr. Fairchild and Ms. Aronson capture these qualities with mostly effective but uneven plausibility.

Annie Baker wrote about this play in 2009: “I wanted to explore how theater can actually happen to a group of people, not just through improvisation and movement exercises (which are, admittedly, pretty hilarious, whether they happen at Juilliard or in a basement in Vermont), but through the sound of sneakers skidding on the floor, the awkward silences during a bathroom break, the pain of an inappropriate crush. I’m happy, and honored, to show that strange little world to an audience, and to celebrate all the people who make art together and don’t stop to worry about whether or not their names will be remembered.”

Bravo to director Annika Bennett and her Theatre Intime ensemble for offering to us this fascinating new voice in American Theater with its idiosyncratic and irresistible ability to draw audiences into the silences, to care about these yearning human beings, and to care about their secrets and their difficult future lives even after class is over and the play ends.

Artists’ Gallery, 18 Bridge Street, Lambertville, has ceramics and water media paintings in “Patterns of Life: Pat Lange and Carol Sanzalone,” April 5-May 5. The closing tea and conversation is May 5, 3-6 p.m.

Arts Council of Princeton, Paul Robeson Center, 102 Witherspoon Street, has “Slaying Medusa: A Greek Myth Retold Through Self-Portraits” through April 13. A talk by artist Barbara Warren and curator Ricardo Barros is April 6 at 2 p.m. Visit www.artscouncilof
princeton.org.

Bernstein Gallery at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, has “Cooking for Change,” photos by Steve Riskind and text by Doris Friedensohn, April 22-June 7. The reception is May 1, 6 p.m.

D&R Greenway, 1 Preservation Place, has “Sky Gazing,” with works by several artists including Lucy Graves McVicker, Charles McVicker, Deb Brockway, Lora Durr, and others, through May 2. “Perspective,” a photography show, is in the Olivia Rainbow Student Gallery through April 4. Beginning April 22, Bob White’s Fine Art Decoys, “Color! From White Swans to Black Ducks” are on view. Call (609) 924-4646 before visiting.

Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum in Cadwalader Park, Parkside Avenue, Trenton, has through May 25, “Trenton’s Educational Legacy: The New Lincoln School.” Through April 19, “More Than a Rug: Tapestries, Paintings & Sculpture” brings items from the David Bosted Collection. A Chinese painting lecture demonstration by Grace Ju Miller is April 7 at 2 p.m. The Ellarslie Open juried exhibit by area artists is on display April 26-June 9. VIP Night is April 26, 6-8 p.m.; Ellarslie Open Night 2 is April 27, 6-9 p.m. Call (609) 989-3632 or visit www.ellarslie.org.

Firestone Library at Princeton University, has “Your True Friend and Enemy: Princeton and the Civil War” in the Mudd Manuscript Library through July 31. “A Republic in the Wilderness: Treasures of American History from Jamestown to Appomattox” is on view through August.

Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell, has “Dancing Lights” by Larry Parsons and works by Samuel Vovsi, through April 14. Visit
photogallery14.com.

Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street, has photographs from its collection in the Princeton Pride Gallery. “We Love Princeton: Stories from the Street” and “Einstein at Home” are also on view. For more information visit www.princeton
history.org.

The James A. Michener Art Museum at 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown, Pa., has “The Mind’s Eye: 50 Years of Photography by Jerry Uelsmann” through April 28. “Transformations II: Works in Steel by Karl Stirner” is on view through June 16. Visit www.michener
artmuseum.org.

Lewis Center for the Arts, 185 Nassau Street, Princeton University, presents exhibits by seniors Samantha Ritter and Charlotte Drause April 4-10, and Katie Brite April 18-26. Photography by Isabel Flower is on view April 16-19.

Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, presents “The Pine Barrens: A Legacy of Preservation. Photographs by Richard Speedy” through April 14. Visit www.morven.org.

The Nassau Club, 6 Mercer Street, has new paintings by Shirley Kern, “The Liminal Line,” through May 31. A reception is April 7, 3-5 p.m. Call (609) 924-0850.

Plainsboro Public Library, 9 Van Doren Street, Plainsboro, hosts artist and mathematician Stefanie Mandelbaum in the April gallery show. Call (609) 275-2897.

Princeton Day School’s Anne Reid ‘72 Art Gallery has works by author and illustrator David Wiesner through April 24. A luncheon/reception is April 18, 11:30 a.m. Visit www.pds.org.

Princeton Theological Seminary’s Erdman Gallery, 20 Library Place, exhibits works by master iconographers and apprentices of the Prosopon School April 12-June 30. An opening reception is April 12, 5-7 p.m.

The Princeton University Art Museum has “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” through June 9. “Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy, and American Portraiture” is on view through June 30. “1913: The Year of Modernism” is on display through June 23. Museum hours: 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. Call (609) 258-3788.

West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, hosts “Energy in Motion,” a photography show, through April 27. Visit www.westwindsor
arts.org.

I’VE GOT TO FIGURE OUT SOME WAY TO SAVE THE HOSTAGES: Disgraced Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), manages to enter the White House unobserved by the terrorists, thanks to his detailed knowledge of the building’s floor plan. Once there, he devises a plan for rescuing the president, vice president and the cabinet from the terrorists who are torturing the hostages for the codes for the nuclear asrsenal.

I’VE GOT TO FIGURE OUT SOME WAY TO SAVE THE HOSTAGES: Disgraced Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), manages to enter the White House unobserved by the terrorists, thanks to his detailed knowledge of the building’s floor plan. Once there, he devises a plan for rescuing the president, vice president and the cabinet from the terrorists who are torturing the hostages for the codes for the nuclear asrsenal.

While serving as the President’s (Aaron Eckhart) personal bodyguard, Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) grew very close to the first family. During his tenure at the White House, the dedicated detail-oriented Secret Service agent familiarized himself with every part of the building’s layout.

However, Banning was reassigned to a desk job after he failed to rescue the First Lady (Ashley Judd) when the presidential limousine plunged off a bridge into a river en route to a Christmas party. Although the accident wasn’t his fault, he agonized over a snap decision of his that might have made the difference between her living and dying.

A year and a half later, Banning is still riddled with guilt despite receiving assurances from the Secret Service director (Angela Banning) that there was nothing he could have done. However, he soon gets a chance to redeem himself when a band of ninjas from North Korea attacks the White House and takes the president and his cabinet hostage.

With the president and vice president (Phil Austin) abducted, the line of succession specifies that the Speaker of the House (Morgan Freeman) assumes power, which he does from a well-fortified bunker. Meanwhile, the leader (Rick Yune) of the terrorists proceeds to torture his hostages in an attempt to learn the codes controlling America’s nuclear arsenal.

Banning observes the attack and subsequent slaughter of his former colleagues from an office window across the street. The disgraced agent springs into action and surreptitiously enters the White House armed only with a handgun and a walkie-talkie. However, he has the advantage over the army of heavily armed intruders because of his detailed knowledge of the White House’s floor plan.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua, Olympus Has Fallen is a fast-paced film that is engaging and entertaining enough to be recommended, provided you don’t question any of the picture’s implausible plot developments.

Featuring pyrotechnics worthy of a 4th of July fireworks display, Olympus Has Fallen is an eye-popping, patriotic, high-octane adventure that leaves no doubt about who the vindicated hero is who has kept the world safe for democracy.

Very Good (***). Rated R for graphic violence and pervasive profanity. In English and Korean with subtitles. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Film District.

March 27, 2013

book revWith apologies to Robert Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” but at the Bryn Mawr–Wellesley book event, “The best is yet to be, the last of the sale, for which the first was made.”

It’s true. The bargain glories of half-price Thursday and box day Friday are yet to be this week at Princeton Day School on the Great Road.

Okay, the first was not made for the last. In fact, the vast stock is routinely ransacked during Monday’s paid preview, but the beauty of Bryn Mawr now, as always, is that the table-sweeping dealers of day one always leave gems in their wake. Almost without exception, some of the sweetest surprises surface on the last day.

 A Sunset Surprise

Once upon a time a long time ago, I was passing through Trieste on my way to India. It was the middle of September and I was watching the sun set from the little bridge called Ponterosso, which spans the Canale Grande. I’d been strolling through the streets of the city thinking of James Joyce, who had lived there on and off in the years between 1904 and 1920. Much of Ulysses was written in Trieste, not to mention Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man and the play Exiles. Thinking the sunset was over, I went off to find a place to have dinner. I hadn’t gone far when something made me walk back to the bridge, one of those mysterious, slightly paranoid cover-your-back feelings. The sky was black and the street lights were coming on as I gazed the length of the canal toward the harbor and the Gulf of Trieste, watching, wide-eyed, as the night was savaged by one of the darkest, deepest, reddest, most passionate skies I’ve ever seen. It was as if the sunset had been dead and buried and had come flaming back to life, lifting the whole mass of settled night on its back. And there it stayed, burning like a fire on the horizon while I stood staring at the vision for what felt like a full ten minutes. If it hadn’t been so beautiful, it would have been terrifying.

When I first made the connection bet-ween that surprise sunset and “the best is yet to be notion” of the last days at Bryn Mawr, I considered building a column around the analogy, but, as may be obvious, the event, still so vivid in my memory, seemed too grand for a mere book sale—at least until I thought about Joyce and the grandeur of Ulysses. My next thought was that this was, after all, no mere book sale but one that was distinguished by the late Peter Oppenheimer’s donation, discussed here on March 20 (“Remembering My First Bryn Mawr Book Sale and a Man Who Was Interested in Everything”). I’d stopped by last weekend to see his books before they were scattered to the wind during Monday’s chaotic preview. As I scanned the Oppenheimer tables fresh from my Trieste sunset reverie, it was hard not to take special notice of his copies of The Exile of James Joyce and Ulysses Annotated with its cover image of Dublin and the Liffey. It was clear that Peter had spent a lot of time with Ulysses Annotated. 

That night I searched online for Trieste and the Ponterosso and found that in 2004 the city and the James Joyce Society had erected a statue of Joyce shambling across the little bridge and installed him right about where I’d been standing when I witnessed that once-in-a-lifetime sunset. It’s one of those appealingly human sculptures, like Princeton’s own true to life J. Seward Johnson depictions of the man reading a newspaper and the boy eating a hamburger. The plaque next to the statue says it was installed on June 16, the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday. Above Joyce’s name and dates (1882-1941) is a quote from his letter to Nora dated October 27, 1909; “la mia anima è a Trieste” (my soul is in Trieste).

There was no need for a plaque with Peter Oppenheimer’s name and dates at Bryn Mawr. His anima was very much there in his love for the books filling the six tables on the main floor and the tables and bookcases in Collectors’ Corner.

A letter from a Princeton friend and neighbor of Peter’s offers amusing evidence of his passion. Apparently he kept recent additions to his collection stacked waist high in his kitchen or scattered about on his stove top or even in his oven, which had long ago been made obsolete by a micro-wave. Eventually, the kitchen library would have to give way to an influx of new arrivals. As for great finds, Peter had discovered his “coffee table-sized,” leather-bound, two-volume version of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary at a flea market propping up the broken leg of a fold-up card table.

A Darconville Coincidence

Ever since I learned of Peter Oppenheimer’s death, I’ve been trying to recall the subject of our last conversation, which took place at the Princeton Record Exchange sometime late last spring, not long, it seems, before he died. What particularly bothers me is that he’d asked me for some information about a particular book or film I’d mentioned in a recent column. Then something or someone interrupted the conversation, Peter was gone, the issue unresolved, a chance encounter with no denouement, unless these two Town Topics columns could count—and perhaps the one just before, about Alexander Theroux’s fantastic novel, Darconville’s Cat.

In that March 13 column I referred to my quest for Darconville through five years of bookstores and book sales. The search was focused on nothing else. I had no list. It was Darconville, Darconville, and nothing but Darconville, at bookstores, always the same question, always the same answer. At Bryn Mawr and Friends of the Library sales between 2007 and 2012, I kept on the lookout for a copy amid the ebbing, flowing tides of recent fiction, hardcover or paper. People still questing during Bryn Mawr’s closing days will understand that not finding the treasure is essential to the fun of searching. I finally gave up last fall, ordered the book online, read it, and wrote about it.

Almost the instant I began scanning the Oppenheimer tables, there it was—Darconville’s Cat staring me in the face. The photocopy of the hapless New York Times review from May 28, 1981 inserted inside it suggested that Peter had had more than a casual interest in the novel, and had at least read around in it. That the book I’d been obsessed with finding had meant something to him was obvious, if only because it was among a handful of novels by better known authors that were far outnumbered by works of non-fiction. It’s easy to imagine the conversation we might have had, my tale of the quest, his response to the column and the coincidence. Mention of Alexander Theroux would have given him the opportunity to tell me about his Peace Corps relationship with Theroux’s brother Paul and the reunion visits to his home on Cape Cod.

A Last Conversation

Now the only sort of “conversation” Peter and I can have is through the two books I found on Monday after the six tables holding the Oppenheimer collection had been swept during the morning rush. One of the survivors with Peter’s name in it was a curious little book I used to own called Reading Finnegan’s Wake, published in 1959 by an obscure press in Woodward, Pa. Given the surreal nature of the secondhand book market, there’s even a slight possibility that this is my old copy. The other Oppenheimer item I found was an edition of Yeats’s Collected Poems from the mid 1950s, which I bought in spite of the condition (the cover is a mess) because it was the only book I found that Peter had written more than his name in. I should mention that there was no rhyme or reason for the Irish turn this imaginary conversation had taken. The cover illustration on Reading Finnegan’s Wake (“The Ballad Singer”) is by Yeats’s painter brother Jack and on the back board W.B. Yeats himself is quoted quoting James Joyce to the effect that he and Jack “have the same method” and that he just purchased two of Jack’s paintings of the Liffey. What Peter wrote on the fly leaf of his copy of Yeats’s Collected Poems, in his crowded, tiny hand, was this: “Why should we honor those that die upon the field of battle, a man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself.” The quote comes from Yeats’s essay, “The Courage of the Artist.” wake

For detailed information on the Bryn-Mawr–Wellesley Book Sale, visit http://www.bmandwbooks.com. The sale is at Princeton Day School on the Great Road. Hours: Wednesday, March 27, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Half-Price Day, Thursday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Box day, Friday, March 29, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

jhumpalahiriAt last week’s monthly meeting of the Princeton Public Library Board of Trustees, Programming Librarian Janie Hermann gave out the scoop on upcoming celebrities who will be stopping by the library in the coming weeks and months.

Featured authors include Ann Leary, Shannon K. O’Neil, and Steve Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri of The Sopranos). Ms. Leary will speak about her newly published novel, The Good House, on April 3; Ms. Neil will discuss Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States and the Road Ahead, on April 18; and Mr. Schirripa shares his insights as the father of two daughters in his new book, Big Daddy’s Rules: Raising Daughters is Tougher than it Looks on May 15.

But perhaps the biggest suprise in store for library patrons this year will be talks by Matthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook and Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Indian American author of Interpreter of Maladies (1999), The Namesake (2003), and Unaccustomed Earth (2008).

Ms. Lahiri’s visit is something of a coup. It has been five years since her last book.

“When I took on this job five years ago, my goal was to add A-list authors to the roster of local author and book group events that were then taking place at the library. When we got the call about Ms. Lahiri, I knew we had made it,” Ms. Hermann told the board. “We will be looking for a venue for Jhumpa Lahiri’s talk, which we expect will draw a larger audience than the library can accommodate.” The library estimates that more than 200 people will want to attend the event and since the Community Room on the first floor holds a maximum of 150, another space will have to be found.

Last year, using social media, Ms. Hermann was able to attract Molly Ringwald to the library. “I had tweeted her agent to see if she was available”, said Ms. Hermann. “She wasn’t but it put us on the radar and when later she had a cancellation in her book tour, she reached out to me.

“Twitter has been great in connecting with publishing houses and authors,” said Ms. Hermann, adding that Ms. Ringwald received no payment for the visit and that all of the money for these events, as for all public programming at the library, comes from funding such as a challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Friends of the Princeton Public Library; no library funding from local taxes is used.

Ms. Hermann was also quick to point out that as exciting as such big name visitors are, Princeton has more than its fair share of homegrown talent. So much in fact that there is just not enough time in the annual calendar to feature them all. Hence Local Author Day, which this year will be held on Saturday, April 13.

This year, Local Author Day will include Admissions author Jean Hanff Korelitz; Meg Cox, author of The New Book of Family Traditions; John W. Hartmann, author of Jacket; and the writing team John P. Calu and David Hart with their new novel Spirits of Cedar Bridge. A further 40 local writers will have a chance to share their work. “Local Author Day celebrates the writers in our midst as well as several book publishers and editors. This year, there were 80 applicants for 40 spots,” reported Ms. Hermann.

Ms. Hermann was also excited to announce the library’s selection of The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick as this year’s Princeton Reads, the town-wide literacy and literary celebration that is held every other year. “We are very lucky to have the author because he is much in demand right now,” she said, referring to the film adaptation of Mr. Quick’s book that was nominated for no less than eight Academy Awards earlier this year. Described as “super engaging, warm and sharply funny,” the film stars Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, and Chris Tucker. Ms. Lawrence won the Oscar for Best Actress. Mr. Quick, who hails from southern New Jersey and is a former high school teacher, will be coming to the library to promote The Silver Linings Playbook and his new young adult novel Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock.

Timing invitations to authors is something of a fine art that Ms. Hermann has mastered. “People constantly make suggestions for big name authors but what they don’t realize is that unless authors are on a book tour when they will come for free or for very little, most high profile writers can command fees of the order of $10,000. The library doesn’t have a budget for that, so I try to find authors who not only fit the needs of the library but are available to us for free.”

The board commended Ms. Hermann for the successes of her first five years and asked about her goals for the next five. She said that while continuing to draw “big names,” she wants to serve the local population including the 30-45 age range, a notoriously difficult demographic to attract, and to reach out to Princeton’s Latin American community. “There’s a balance to be achieved between keeping it local, providing something for everyone, and having recognized authors,” she said.

Mr. Quick’s talk will take place on November 15; Ms. Lahiri’s on October 2. Added to all of this is the annual benefit hosted by the Friends of the Library, which this year will be held October 19 and bring the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and New Yorker editor David Remnick to the library for a conversation with Princeton’s own John McPhee and Paul Muldoon. Now that’s a line up!

For more information on library programming, visit: www.princetonlibrary.org. For more about the October benefit,call The Friends of Princeton Public Library: (609) 924.9529, ext. 280 or email gcampanellasnow@princetonlibrary.org.

THE TOOL COLLECTOR: Thomas Kelly’s 32 inch by 40 inch acrylic on canvas work, will be one of 16 whimsical and colorful paintings by the local artist in his solo show “All I Have Learned, Until Now” at the Chapin School, 4101 Princeton Pike, from April 1 through April 30. A reception will be held April 3, from 5 to 7 p.m. Admission is free and the exhibit can be viewed by appointment during school hours between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. For more information, call (609) 924-7206.

THE TOOL COLLECTOR: Thomas Kelly’s 32 inch by 40 inch acrylic on canvas work, will be one of 16 whimsical and colorful paintings by the local artist in his solo show “All I Have Learned, Until Now” at the Chapin School, 4101 Princeton Pike, from April 1 through April 30. A reception will be held April 3, from 5 to 7 p.m. Admission is free and the exhibit can be viewed by appointment during school hours between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. For more information, call (609) 924-7206.

Local artist Thomas Kelly’s whimsical works will be on view in the exhibition “All I Have Learned, Until Now” opening at the Gallery at Chapin School on Princeton Pike on April 1 and running through April 30. A reception for the artist will be held April 3, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

What Mr. Kelly has learned includes “a lot of things,” he says: how to keep at it and how to maintain his own unique vision. He’s happy to share insights gleaned from 15 years as a working artist. His as yet unpublished manuscript, One Hundred Rules for the Aspiring Painter, is a treasure trove of advice suitable for artists visual and otherwise. With one liners to expand upon, such as: “Don’t be perfect,” Get fresh air,” and “Know when to stop,” Mr. Kelly is a popular speaker with community groups.

The artist’s stick-to-it attitude was influenced by his professors at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) from which he graduated with an associate degree in fine arts in 1997. Frank Rivera and Terri McNichol taught him how to draw and renowned painter Mel Leipzig passed on a “fantastic work ethic.” “Mel held down a full-time job and yet he still managed to produce between 10 and 12 paintings a year,” says Mr. Kelly who fits his own creative activity around a day job with the German company, KNF Neuberger, Inc. The firm makes custom vacuum pumps and Mr. Kelly has been with them since starting as an apprentice in 1988. Working in a highly regulated field makes a stark contrast with artistic pursuits, he says. But when he paints, he follows a routine, always having familiar and therefore non-distracting music playing in the background, for example. He works almost exclusively in acrylic paints.

In addition to his MCCC mentors, the artist cites his Bordentown dealer along with some 40 regular private collectors of his work for the encouragement that has kept him going since his first show in 1998. “I get a lot of positive feedback and that’s important to keeping a sparkle and sense of fun alive.” he says.

Over the years, Mr. Kelly has built up a regular following. Between 70 and 80 percent of his work is bought by private collectors, most of them local, although he does have one long-distance admirer who saw his work on a visit to the United States eight years ago and had a painting shipped to his home in Switzerland.

Born 1963 in Trenton, Mr. Kelly has had solo exhibitions at Bordentown’s Artful Deposit Gallery, Trenton’s Urban Word Café, and at the Trenton City Museum. His work has been featured at the Gallery at Mercer County Community College and elsewhere throughout New Jersey. He’s won several awards in juried shows and has works in public collections in the Trenton City Museum, Mercer County Community College, and at the Marriott Hotel Lafayette Yard, Trenton.

Mr. Kelly’s charming and whimsical narrative paintings chronicle common scenes of everyday life. There’s a flat, almost cartoon-like quality to his work. A Kelly painting is easy to identify and easy to connect with. His themes are universal.

Because of the narrative aspect of his work, he’s often asked by viewers about “the story” behind his paintings. He finds, however, that viewers often provide storylines of their own that “rival” his own and so he encourages them to do so. Take for example, The Tool Collector and The Iris Farmer. Viewers will find the urge to interpret beyond the frame to be irresistible. Is that the Iris Farmer’s wife who looks so jaded? Should he spend more time with her and less with his flowers?The tool collector has a wall that is chocabloc with implements and what looks to be a rather grand home and yet he is alone with his dog in an otherwise empty room. He looks happy enough with his newspaper and glass of wine, but is there or isn’t there something missing? What is the painter really trying to tell us? Mr. Kelly is more likely to smile and let you embroider on his work than give his own interpretation.

The artist has taken his whimsy to school playgrounds, most notably the series “Cool Down Fish,” which started as a blacktop mural for one school in Hamilton and then led to requests from others. His brightly colored 45 foot by 30 foot spiral path in the shape of a fish incorporates the values of respect, responsibility, caring, fairness, trust, and citizenship. Besides its attraction as a work of art, the “Cool Down Fish” provides kids with an opportunity to take time out for a calming walk.

“All I Have Learned, Until Now” will run in the Gallery at the Chapin School, 4101 Princeton Pike, from April 1 through April 30. A reception for the artist will be held April 3, from 5 to 7 p.m. Admission is free and the exhibit can be viewed by appointment during school hours between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. For more information, call (609) 924-7206.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra paid tribute to both New Jersey composers and music educators this past weekend with a concert of Classical period music—touched with a bit of 20th century New Jersey. NJSO Music Director Jacques Lacombe led the Orchestra in a performance of Mozart, Schubert and Cone works which also showed off the results of effective music education.

The Orchestra began Friday night’s performance at Richardson Auditorium with a demonstration of an NJSO educational initiative. Four members of NJSO’s Greater Newark Chamber Orchestra, violinists Winifred Waters and Rachel Seo, violist Melissa Hollfelder and cellist Nicholas Wu, played an excerpt of a Dvorak string quartet, showing solid technique individually and a well-blended sound among the four players as an ensemble. Under the careful watch of coach Stephen Fang, the Orchestra’s Assistant Principal Cellist, this quartet of young musicians showed their drive and dedication to music with elegant melodic lines played by each instrumentalist and handling well the responsibility of communicating as a quartet.

Mr. Lacombe paired the New Jersey educational initiative with a work by a New Jersey composer.  Edward Cone’s Elegy is a piece NJSO has presented before as part of its New Jersey Roots Project, and is a work with which both conductor and Orchestra becomes more comfortable with each performance.  The combination of haunting oboe and English horn solos played by James Roe and Andrew Adelson, respectively, sounded especially smooth in the hall, and Mr. Lacombe found both a crispness and flow which gave the work direction.

The wind effects of the Cone piece were well paired with another work with elegant wind writing—Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor, the “Unfinished” Symphony.  Conducting from memory, Mr. Lacombe began the first movement with creeping celli and the familiar theme played lightly with a Viennese touch.  Mr. Lacombe brought out the sforzandi well and effectively used a pair of teasing horns to lead back to the restatement of the theme.  The second movement was marked by a light touch on horn and strings, aided by a light clarinet solo played by Karl Herman and Mr. Roe’s clean and lilting oboe solos. Mr. Lacombe’s concentration and focus in this piece was exceptional, given the unfortunate instances of Richardson house staff seating late-comers (very late-comers) just as he was ready to give the downbeat and a cell phone ringing in one of the quietest moments of the second movement.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is viewed as a height of the Classical period, and his Requiem is seen as a zenith of his compositional powers. Left unfinished at Mozart’s death, the Requiem includes challenging quick passages for the choral singers and opportunities for chorus and orchestra to create an elegant 18th-century Viennese musical palette.   Joining the pared-down NJSO were four vocal soloists and the 60-voice Montclair State University Singers, who had been thoroughly prepared by Heather J. Buchanan.  Bassoonist Robert Wagner provided the dark opening theme, and the basses of the chorus began the Mass for the Dead text with assuredness.

In the more elegant and lyrical movements the chorus provided a very full and blended sound in the hall without having to oversing, and the phrase directions requested by Mr. Lacombe were well executed.  Running passages were well handled by all sections, with the tenors impressively light and clean.  The soprano section was able to float their sound well in the beginning of the piece, but as the mass went on, vibrato began to control the sectional sound.  The tenor and bass sections provided particularly effective bite in the “Confutatis” movement, answered by a sweet “voca me” from the women.

The vocal quartet, soprano Christine Brandes, mezzo-soprano Suzanne Mentzer, tenor Gordon Gietz and bass Robert Pomakov, showed especially solid ensemble in the “Benedictus” section, as well as other moments when all four singers were singing together. Ms. Brandes was consistently a decisive singer with a voice full of color, and Mr. Pomakov showed his best lower range on the “Tuba Mirum” text elegantly accompanied by tenor trombonist Vernon Post. The Orchestra maintained a Viennese lilt to the accompaniment, with very clean brass playing among two trumpets and three trombones in the “Benedictus” movement.  Showing the attentiveness of the chorus, the final fugue was as clean as the first as the Requiem closed in dramatic fashion.

This performance was a solid collaborative effort among New Jersey ensembles as well as student players from within the NJSO organization.  Performing Viennese such staples as Mozart and Schubert no doubt made everyone’s late winter Friday evening just a bit more pleasant.

 

THOSE WERE THE DAYS MY FRIEND: Portia (Tina Fey, left) meets John (Paul Rudd), who was her former college boyfriend when they were both students at Dartmouth. John is now the principal of a high school in New Hampshire, and, as part of her job of admissions officer at Princeton University, Portia is looking for potential candidates. To her surprise, John recommends someone who turns out to be Portia’s son whom she gave up for adoption at birth.

THOSE WERE THE DAYS MY FRIEND: Portia (Tina Fey, left) meets John (Paul Rudd), who was her former college boyfriend when they were both students at Dartmouth. John is now the principal of a high school in New Hampshire, and, as part of her job of admissions officer at Princeton University, Portia is looking for potential candidates. To her surprise, John recommends someone who turns out to be Portia’s son whom she gave up for adoption at birth.

Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) has worked for 16 years in the admissions office at Princeton, the university regularly rated by experts as among the best in the country. Because of her pivotal role in picking prospective students for the highly selective Ivy League institution, she often finds herself approached by pushy parents who are seeking preferential treatment for their children.

That’s why she prides herself on never having compromised the integrity of the application process, a commitment that is appreciated by her boss, the outgoing Dean of Admissions (Wallace Shawn). In fact, he has recently indicated that he’s prepared to recommend either her or the equally dedicated Corinne (Gloria Reuben) as his replacement when he retires.

That announcement starts a fierce competition between the two colleagues which has Portia going up to New Hampshire in search of qualified candidates for admission. She visits an alternative high school whose handsome principal, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), had been a classmate of hers at Dartmouth. Sparks fly, but nothing transpires, because she’s in a committed relationship at home in Princeton.

John pressures Portia to interview Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), a bright but underachieving student with a woeful academic transcript. She has no problem dismissing the application out of hand until John gives her a birth certificate showing that Jeremiah is the son that she gave up for adoption years ago.

Suddenly, Portia finds herself on the horns of a dilemma. Should she reject this candidate who is clearly not Princeton material, or should she bend the rules for her own flesh and blood? After all, it’s the least she could do, since she had no part in raising him.

That is the conundrum at the heart of Admission, a delightful romantic movie directed by Paul Weitz (American Pie). Based on Jean Hanff Korelitz’s bestseller of the same name, the film offers a revealing look at the cutthroat college entrance process from the gatekeepers’ point of view.

Besides the temptation of nepotism, the film is about the tender romance between Portia and John which has a chance to blossom when she’s abandoned by her philandering boyfriend (Michael Sheen), which she discovers when she returns from New Hampshire. Additionally, intriguing subplots abound that involve a cornucopia of colorful support characters.

For instance, John, who is not married, has an adopted African son (Travaris Spears) who craves the predictability that settling down with a stable woman might provide. And Portia needs to mend fences with her estranged mother (Lily Tomlin), a breast cancer survivor who in turn would benefit from the attentions of an ardent admirer (Olek Krupa). Additional sidebars feature memorable cameos by Roby Sobieski (Leelee’s little brother), Asher Muldoon (author Korelitz’s son), and an emerging ingénue, Nadia Alexander.

Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity and some sexuality. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Focus Features.

 

March 20, 2013

book rev1My early and invincible love of reading I would not exchange for all the riches of India.

—Edward Gibbon

I bought no books at my first Bryn Mawr Book Sale, April 28, 1976. I was incapable of serious browsing, having witnessed earlier that same morning the birth of my first, and only, child. I was floating. I floated in and I floated out. I don’t mean to slight the community’s single largest book event, but much as the arrival of a life in the context of Bryn Mawr 1976 puts the occasion in philosophical perspective, so does the loss of a life in the context of Bryn Mawr-Wellesley 2013. The life lost — that of Princeton bibliophile/philosopher/scholar/enlightened enthusiast Peter Oppenheimer — has given the sale one of the most sizeable and categorically rich and diverse donations in its history. Fifteen thousand volumes of philosophy, mathematics, history, art, music, literary criticism, literature, and biography, among other subject areas from Oppenheimer’s library, will be divided between the 2013 and 2014 events. Next week’s five-day sale begins with a $20 preview at 10 a.m., Monday, March 25, at Princeton Day School on the Great Road.

I didn’t leave my first Bryn Mawr sale empty handed, by the way. I had the piece of sheet music shown above in my hand. The cover silhouette of “Hindustan” signified another blessed event, my newborn book, Indian Action: An American Journey to the East. The lyrics were pure Tin Pan Alley circa 1918, “Shades of night are falling, nightingales are calling, every heart enthralling,” but the cover image was all it took to seal a special day and it’s been on display near my desk ever since.

Meeting Peter

My Bryn Mawr-Hindustan child’s first 10 years coincided with a particularly rich period in the used-book life of Princeton, centered in those days on bookstores like Witherspoon, Micawber, and the Cranbury Book Worm, and the annual sales at the library and at Bryn Mawr venues that eventually included Baker Rink and the rink at PDS, where I could sometimes be found with my son in one arm and a pile of books in the other. The 1980s were also a kind of golden age of garage and estate sales where extraordinary books could be found practically every week from spring through fall. But it was when Logan Fox came to town in 1981 and opened Micawber Books that the golden age truly began, since his store, true to its name, had a way of turning up wondrous somethings from some of Princeton’s most interesting libraries. Every week he seemed to be putting out rarities I could afford only by trading the previous weekend’s garage/estate sale finds. And it was at Micawber one day that Peter Oppenheimer and I arrived at a friendly territorial impasse. The objects of mutual desire were a set of Thomas DeQuincey from the 1850s, and two enormous, beautifully bound and lavishly illustrated books about Paris from the early 1830s. Peter got DeQuincey. I got Paris. If you believe in book sale fates and sheer serendipity, both these bones of ancient contention could turn up at next week’s sale.

Google Is Peter

Peter rarely if ever showed up at the garage and estate sales. Nor did he have any desire to join the stampede that had been a feature of the Bryn Mawr preview mornings until the folks in charge book rev2found a way to create an orderly procession — one that at least stays that way until people reach the arena where most of the books are. Then the game is on. Books fly off the tables, and you see big boxes dwarfing pairs of human legs moving weirdly about like book creatures in a book nerd’s nightmare while massive piles of hooded spoils rise in all corners. Peter would appear only after the heavy hitters had gone, and could sometimes be found there in the post-storm quietus when it was possible to calmly prowl and muse and putter amid the neglected multitudes.

Fortuitously based in the air-tight vault occupied by the Witherspoon Art & Book Store in the old Princeton Bank and Trust building on the corner of Nassau and Bank Streets, Peter was able to make the most of his enthusiasm for and wide knowledge of scholarly books as a trusted aide to the store’s owner Pat McConahay. “Wide knowledge” is an understatement. Peter’s family was in awe of his range. According to an email from his sister Lucy, “He was interested in EVERYthing.” To his younger brother Daniel, “Before Google, there was Peter.”

He was born in New York City, his mother an assistant classics professor at Hunter College, a musician, and a “Renaissance woman,” his father a mechanical engineer with an interest in language. Peter began reading at age three, was collecting books by the time he got to high school and would make notes on every volume he read in tiny print on 4 x 6 cards, a practice he kept up for the rest of his life. Browsers at next week’s sale may find some of these note cards still tucked between the covers of his books, although the print is so small you may need a magnifying glass. When I first knew him, Peter had serious ocular issues and seemed able to read only by holding printed matter right up to his eyes. Lucy says it’s because he used only one eye and had learned to read whole paragraphs at a time, “which is why he read so fast.” If we were in an R. Crumb comic strip about book freaks, Peter would appear as Barney Google and I would be a bearded Dagwood Bumstead forever barely making it onto the back of the bookstore bus.

Slightly built and intense, seemingly always processing thoughts, never without something to say, Peter talked a blue streak — “all over the place,” Lucy fondly recalls, “the same way he read.” It would be wrong, however, to restrict his story to a purely bookish environment. After graduating from the University of Chicago, where he studied mathematics, philosophy, and symbolic logic, he served in Malawi, East Africa in the first generation of the Peace Corps, an experience his sister says had “a powerful impact on him,” such that in the last few years he would reconnect with the others in his group every summer on Cape Cod at the home of novelist Paul Theroux, visits Lucy says “Peter thoroughly enjoyed.”

After Witherspoon closed in June 2005, Peter and I continued to encounter one another on Nassau Street, at the library, and in the Princeton Record Exchange. He always had more than books to talk about. Sometimes he would be responding to some film or book or record I’d written about in that week’s Town Topics. Like me, Peter came of age in the 1960s and was touched for life with the sixties spirit, so it’s no surprise that the Portable Beat Reader is among the books of his in Bryn Mawr’s Collectors’ Corner, along with the first edition of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

The scope of Peter’s holdings in classics and philosophy is staggering. His sister estimates that he owned 15 complete or partial versions of Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Among the hundreds of his books in Bryn Mawrs’ Collectors’ Corner are Cross Cultural Encounters in Joseph Conrad’s Malay Fiction; Japan Through American Eyes; Between Geography and History; Age, Marriage and Politics in Fifteenth-Century Ragusa; Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724. You get the idea. The list sometimes has the aura of a Borges library: The Ghost Festival in Medieval China; Vitruvius: Ten Books on Architecture; Death in the Tiergarten; Shipwreck with Spectator; and The Merciless Laboratory of History.

Asked to name favorite writers or specific literary, historical, scientific, or philosophical fixations of Peter’s, Lucy could only say that many of his books related to Samuel Johnson, Boswell, and English literature and history. That makes sense, for Samuel Johnson was, like Peter, interested in EVERYthing and perhaps best known for once telling Boswell, “When a man tires of London, he tires of life.” A portion of Peter’s “London” will be at Princeton Day School next week. It’s sad to think that this is one Bryn Mawr-Wellesley sale Peter would have stood in line for on opening day, it’s his dream, his baby, the sum of his heart’s desire.

For detailed information on the Bryn-Mawr Wellesley Book Sale, visit www.bmandwbooks.com. Preview Day Monday, March 25, admission is $20 per person, with hours from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Preview sale admission tickets have been issued using a lottery system. Tickets may also be bought at the door. Preview sale customers will have a chance to sign up for Collectors’ Corner as they pick up the tickets. The sale is open to the public on Tuesday, March 26, and Wednesday, March 27, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Half-Price Day, Thursday, the hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Box day, Friday, March 29, hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Art Times Two Gallery, Princeton Brain and Spine Care, 731 Alexander Road, presents “Energy in Mind: Picturing Consciousness,” works by Jennifer Cadoff, Debra Weier and Andrew Werth, through April. View by appointment. Call (609) 203-4622.

Artsbridge, Prallsville Mill, Route 29, Stockton, presents painter Jo-Ann Osnoe as part of its Distinguished Artist Series on March 21 at 7 p.m. Visit www.artsbridgeonline.com

Arts Council of Princeton, Paul Robeson Center, 102 Witherspoon Street, has outdoor sculpture by Mike Gyampo on view through March 30 on the Michael Graves Terrace. Through April 13, “Slaying Medusa: A Greek Myth Retold Through Self-Portraits” is on display. A talk by artist Barbara Warren and curator Ricardo Barros is April 6 at 2 p.m. Visit www.artscouncil
ofprinceton.org.

Bank of Princeton’s Community Art Gallery, 10 Bridge Street, Lambertville, shows art work from “Hearts for Autism” students and Lambertville Academy students through April 15.

Bernstein Gallery at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, has “The Fourth Grade Project,” portraits by Judy Gelles, through April 4.

Brodsky Gallery, Chauncey Conference Center, ETS, Rosedale Road, has an exhibit by Janis Blayne Paul titled “Karmic Stone: Inspiration Carved in Stone” through March 31. (609) 921-3600.

Cafe 44, 44 Leigh Avenue, has “Water, Water, Everywhere…”, photographs by Tasha O’Neill and paintings by Mary Waltham, through April 15.

College of New Jersey Art Gallery, Pennington Road, Ewing, presents “Value Added: Artists’ Perspectives on the Meaning of Worth” through April 18.

D&R Greenway, 1 Preservation Place, has “Sky Gazing,” with works by several artists including Lucy Graves McVicker, Charles McVicker, Deb Brockway, Lora Durr, and others, through May 2. “Perspective,” a photography show, is in the Olivia Rainbow Student Gallery through April 4. Call (609) 924-4646 before visiting.

Douglass Library, Rutgers, 8 Chapel Drive, New Brunswick, has “Trans Technology: Circuits of Culture, Self Belonging” through June 3. The show is part of the Mary H. Dana Women Artists Series.

Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum in Cadwalader Park, Parkside Avenue, Trenton, has through May 25, “Trenton’s Educational Legacy: The New Lincoln School.” Through April 19, “More Than a Rug: Tapestries, Paintings & Sculpture” brings items from the David Bosted Collection. A gallery talk is March 24, 2 p.m., by Mr. Bosted, on African Textiles. A Chinese painting lecture demonstration by Grace Ju Miller is April 7 at 2 p.m. Call (609) 989-3632 or visit www.ellarslie.org.

Firestone Library at Princeton University, has “Your True Friend and Enemy: Princeton and the Civil War” in the Mudd Manuscript Library through July 31. “A Republic in the Wilderness: Treasures of American History from Jamestown to Appomattox” is on view through August.

Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, has works by painter Thomas Kelly, April 1-30. Call (609) 924-7206.

Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell, has “Dancing Lights” by Larry Parsons and works by Samuel Vovsi, through April 14. Visit photo
gallery14.com.

Gourgaud Gallery, Town Hall, Cranbury, has a show of “United Federation of Teachers Painting Group” through March 29.

Grounds for Sculpture, Fairgrounds Road in Hamilton, showcases Robert Taplin’s “Heaven, Hell, and the History of Punch” in the Museum Building through April. “Mapping Memories,” an installation by Mark Parsons, is on the mezzanine of the Domestic Arts Building through March. Ming Fay’s “Canutopia” is in the East Gallery through July. In the Meadow, “THRE3” and “MYTHOS” are on view. Visit www.groundsforsculp
ture.org.

Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street, has photographs from its collection in the Princeton Pride Gallery. “We Love Princeton: Stories from the Street” and “Einstein at Home” are also on view. For more information visit www.princetonhistory.org.

The James A. Michener Art Museum at 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown, Pa., has “The Mind’s Eye: 50 Years of Photography by Jerry Uelsmann” through April 28. “Transformations II: Works in Steel by Karl Stirner” is on view through June 16. Visit www.michener
artmuseum.org.

The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, has “Lynd Ward Draws Stories: Inspired by Mexico’s History, Mark Twain, and Adventures in the Woods” through June 23. “Henri-Gabriel Ibels” is exhibited through September 8. Works by Russian artist Leonid Sokov are displayed through July 14. “Stars: Contemporary Prints by Derriere L’Etoile Studio is on view March 23-September 29.

Lewis Center for the Arts, 185 Nassau Street, Princeton University, presents exhibits by seniors Samantha Ritter and Charlotte Drause April 4-10, and Katie Brite April 18-26. Photography by Isabel Flower is on view April 16-19.

Mariboe Gallery, Peddie School, Hightstown, presents “Sustenance” mixed media by Andrew DeCaen, March 22-April 7. Visit www.peddie.org/mariboegallery.

Mercer County Community College Gallery, Communications Building, 1200 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor, hosts “Mercer County Artists 2013” through April 4. Visit www.mccc.edu/gallery.

Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, presents “The Pine Barrens: A Legacy of Preservation. Photographs by Richard Speedy” through April 14. On March 21 at 7 p.m., Amy Karpati lectures on “From Flora to Fire: The Ecological Story of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.” Tickets are $12 ($10 for Friends of Morven). Visit www.morven.org.

New Hope Arts Center, 2 Stockton Avenue, New Hope, Pa., presents “Continuum: The Emerging Image,” master and emerging artists, through March 23. Call (215) 862-9606.

New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton, displays “Jon Naar: Signature Photography” through May 4. Visit www.nj.gov/state/museum.

Phillips Mill, 2619 River Road, New Hope, has its annual photographic exhibition through March 31. Visit www.phillipsmill.org.

Princeton Day School’s Anne Reid ‘72 Art Gallery has works by author and illustrator David Wiesner, April 1-24. A luncheon/reception is April 18, 11:30 a.m. Visit www.pds.org.

The Princeton University Art Museum has “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” through June 9. “Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy, and American Portraiture” is on view through June 30. “1913: The Year of Modernism” is on display March 23-June 23. Museum hours: 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. Call (609) 258-3788.

Robert Beck Gallery, 204 North Union Street, Lambertville, hosts the 32nd Annual Juried Art Exhibit, “Lambertville and the Surrounding Area,” by the Lambertville Historical Society, through March 28. Call (609) 397-0951 for details.

Square Peg Round Hole Gallery, 212 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown, presents a solo exhibition by Tamara Ramos on March 30, 4-8 p.m. Call (609) 291-7062.

Straube Center, 1 Straube Center Boulevard, Pennington, shows Jay McClellan’s “Tip, Honey & Lucky-Bold Barks” paintings March 22-June 14. Visit www.straubecenter.com.

West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, hosts “Energy in Motion,” a photography show, through April 27. Visit www.westwindsorarts.org.

NEVER NOT BE AFRAID!: The head of a family living in a cave in the Stone Age and headed by Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage, far right) sets out on a perilous journey in search of a safer place to live. Grug constantly reminds them to “never not be afraid” because from his experience the world is a very, very dangerous place.

NEVER NOT BE AFRAID!: The head of a family living in a cave in the Stone Age and headed by Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage, far right) sets out on a perilous journey in search of a safer place to live. Grug constantly reminds them to “never not be afraid” because from his experience the world is a very, very dangerous place.

Are you better off than you were four million years ago? That’s the evolutionary question playfully posed by The Croods, a visually captivating action cartoon about a family of cave dwellers who summon up their courage to abandon their home in the face of an impending climate change.

The enchanting movie was co-directed by Kirk De Micco (Space Chimps) and Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon), who assembled a cast featuring Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, and Cloris Leachman to breathe life into a colorful array of prehistoric characters. Besides the talented voice cast, the film effectively uses 3-D technology to guarantee that the audience will be enthralled by ducking projectiles aimed directly at their heads or trying to touch objects dangling just out of reach.

At the point of departure we find the Croods huddled inside their dank dark cave where they sleep together in a pile to keep warm at night. The family is presided over by Grug (Cage), an overprotective patriarch whose mantra is the double-negative “Never not be afraid!”

The other members of the clan include a nagging mother-in-law Gran (Leachman), long-suffering wife Ugga (Catherine Keener), and their three children: baby Sandy (Randy Thom), man-child Thunk (Clark Duke), and rebellious teen Eep (Stone). Grug feels it is his duty to remind them on a daily basis of the many dangers lurking just beyond the entrance of their boulder-fortified abode.

That’s why he’s so fond of telling bedtime stories in which any curiosity about what happens in the outside world invariably proves fatal. Grug’s scare tactics work until the fateful day Eep sneaks off to explore on her own and encounters a boy named Guy (Reynolds) about her own age.

Not only has Guy figured out how to harness fire to keep hungry creatures at bay but he forecasts imminent doom for any one who fails to move to higher ground. When Eep brings word of this frightening development to her father, it becomes abundantly clear that it’s going to take more than a little convincing to get him to lead the family out of the cave on a perilous trek to safety.

Mother Nature plays a part in nudging him to grudgingly join forces with Guy, and the ensuing journey across a vast wasteland to Shangri-La allows for a priceless lesson about risk-taking as relevant today as it must have been back in the Stone Age. The movie is a side-splitting thrill-a-minute adventure reminiscent of the best of The Flintstones.

Excellent (****). Rated PG for scenes of peril. Running time: 98 minutes. Studio: Dreamworks Animation. Distributor: 20th Century Fox.

 

March 13, 2013

GreekArt2Artist Barbara Warren brings together ancient Greek myth and the contemporary medium of digital photography to startling effect in her solo exhibition, “Slaying Medusa: A Greek Myth Retold Through Self-Portraits,” opening at the Arts Council of Princeton this Saturday, March 16. when a reception for the artist will take place from 4 to 6 p.m. The show runs through April 13, a short run, so don’t miss it.

If you recall, the Greek myth relates the story of Perseus who sets out to slay the fearsome Medusa, one of three Gorgon sisters, so gruesome that all living creatures turn to stone at the very sight of them. Perseus travels land and sea in his search aided by the gods Athena and Hermes, sent by Zeus to help him. Athena lends him her shield, polished bright as a mirror. Hermes lends him his sword. He tricks Medusa’s sisters, stealing the one eye they share between them and ultimately slays Medusa. When he cuts off Medusa’s head, the beautiful winged horse, Pegasus, springs from her severed neck

In Ms. Warren’s retelling, she interprets the narrative through a series of self-portraits. To do so, she melds her identity with the persona of each of the myth’s main characters, becoming, in turn, Perseus, Medusa, Hermes, Zeus.

“Storytelling goes back to the Greeks and Barbara is doing what the ancient Greeks did with a contemporary medium and in a unique way by self portraiture,” says curator Ricardo Barros, the show’s curator, who is also a photographer and a member of the Arts Council’s gallery advisory committee.

“The photographs propel the story forward,” says Mr. Barros, “There is an unexpected rhythm to Barbara’s approach; her expressive portraits convey not only the drama and adventure of Perseus’ quest, but also the psychological journey undertaken when one commits to confronting one’s fears.”

Mr. Barros suggested Barbara for an exhibition because of the quality of her work and because of the value of a solo exhibition for an emerging photographer. As a rule, the Arts Council favors group shows, giving exposure to multiple artists. A solo exhibition is a rare honor. “Barbara’s work deserves to be seen,” says Mr. Barros. “It will have a significant impact on those who see it and a significant impact on Barbara’s career.”

SWIFTER THAN THE WIND: Hermes is among the gods and heroes portrayed in an unusual exhibition of photographs, “Slaying Medusa: A Greek Myth Retold Through Self-Portraits,” opening this Saturday, March 16, at the Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street. (Courtesy of Barbara Warren)

SWIFTER THAN THE WIND: Hermes is among the gods and heroes portrayed in an unusual exhibition of photographs, “Slaying Medusa: A Greek Myth Retold Through Self-Portraits,” opening this Saturday, March 16, at the Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street.
(Courtesy of Barbara Warren)

The project started as an assignment from Mr. Barros, Ms. Warren’s teacher and mentor, to represent the myth of Perseus and Medusa. With no instructions beyond the subject matter, the artist was free to take off in any direction. The resulting sequence of images were shot using infra red which requires considerable post-processing. A few of the images are composite. All are black and white. Alongside each photograph, the story of Perseus and Medusa is told via selected texts from the book Book of Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire borrowed from the Princeton Public Library.

Putting herself in front of the lens was a learning experience, says Ms. Warren, who makes her living as a professional photographer with portraits and weddings. “I realized what it is like for my clients! But once I got into it, I really enjoyed it. Some of it was great fun, like portraying the Gorgon Sisters and Medusa. Much of it was very challenging, especially portraying the young men in the story as well as the god Zeus. It took around 700 shots to get Perseus’s jawline just right.”

“I’ve never liked photographs of myself. The camera paralyzed me; I ‘turned to stone’ in front of it, just as I had seen others do when I photographed them. This is why I chose self-portraiture to tell this story,” says the artist. “We all have our own Medusa to slay,” she says. “Our culture’s premium on youth and physical beauty, for example, dampens our self-esteem with unrealistic standards of adequacy. But there are many Medusas, each as intimidating as the next, and every one can turn their challenger to stone. This is why we sing praises of those who successfully confront their fears.”

Turning the camera upon herself helped the photographer tackle her own fears and judgments. “My need to be pretty for the camera disappeared as over the course of several months, I photographed myself as each one of the characters. I had the power to be young, old, ugly, frightful, and handsome,” she says, of the year-long project.

Many of the images evoke the androgynous actress Tilda Swinton. Others bring famed photographer Cindy Sherman to mind. Unlike Sherman, however, Warren does not go in for props. “I didn’t want to stage these images but to use facial expression, pose, angle, and lighting to portray character,” she says.

“The significant difference between Sherman and Warren.” says Mr. Barros, “is that the latter’s work uses psychological persona as opposed to the physical persona that is in Sherman’s hallmark. “Barbara is engaged in a dialogue with artists who precede her by thousands of years,” says Mr. Barros. “Her work here is creative and highly crafted.”

Born in Kentucky, Ms. Warren has lived most of her life in Bucks County. Her work has been published in B&W magazine, Photographic Magazine, and American Vision: Images by the Best of Today’s Amateur Nature Photographers. She’s garnered several awards including Best Body of Work 2011 at the Phillips Mill Photographic Exhibition, Best of Show 2010 at the Phillips Mill Photographic Exhibition, and Best of Show in Voices of the Marsh 2010. This is her first solo show.

“Slaying Medusa: A Greek Myth Retold Through Self-Portraits” runs March 16 through April 13 in the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts at 102 Witherspoon Street. Barbara Warren and curator Ricardo Barros will discuss the exhibition on Saturday, April 6 at 2 p.m. For more information, call (609) 924-8777 or visit: artscouncilofprinceton.org; for more on Barbara Warren, visit: www.barbarawarren.com.

book rev 2In Beat Generation scripture Carl Solomon asks Allen Ginsberg, “Who are you?” to which Ginsberg instantly replies, “I’m Prince Myshkin,” asking the same of Solomon, who says, unhesitatingly, “I’m Kirilov.” The two poets identifying themselves as the holy fool and the nihilist from The Idiot aren’t delusional, they’re just living in Dostoevsky. So was Jack Kerouac, who called him Dusty, and so are generations of readers, who, like actor/writer Stephen Fry, put him foremost among those great writers who were “not to be bowed down before and worshipped, but embraced and befriended,” and who “put their arms around you and showed you things you always knew but never dared to believe.”

It Began in Princeton

Award-winning Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank (1918-2013), who died in Palo Alto on March 3, wrote the first volumes of his magnum opus in Princeton, where he lived at various times during the 1950s and from 1966 to 1985. Early in his preface to Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (2010), the one-volume edition of the five-part work published by Princeton University Press, Frank pays his respects to “the much lamented and gifted novelist” David Foster Wallace, “the most perceptive reader of my first four volumes.” The only sentence quoted from Wallace’s essay, however, is the one in which he contrasts Frank’s approach to that of James Joyce biographer Richard Ellman, who “doesn’t go into anything like Frank’s detail on ideology or politics or social theory.”

Enter David Foster Wallace

Intrigued by the appearance of the Generation X author of Infinite Jest in the preface to what was for all purposes the swan song of Frank’s great work, I sought out the essay in question, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky,” which originally appeared in 1996 in the Village Voice Literary Supplement as “Feodor’s Guide” and can be found in Wallace’s 2005 collection, Consider the Lobster.

The first thing that caught my attention in Wallace’s quirky, refreshingly candid, and highly personal essay was the way his presentation of the genesis of Frank’s book clarified Princeton’s place in the story, something the New York Times’s notably skimpy obituary failed to do: “In 1957 one Joseph Frank, then thirty-eight, a Comparative Lit professor at Princeton, is preparing a lecture on existentialism.” The text Frank is “working his way through” is Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, “a powerful but extremely weird little novel” whose protagonist’s “disease” is “a blend of grandiosity and self-contempt, of rage and cowardice, of ideological fervor, and a self-conscious inability to act on his convictions.”

After describing how Frank comes to realize that Notes from the Underground and its Underground Man “are impossible really to understand without some knowledge of the intellectual climate of Russia in the 1860s,” Wallace caught my attention again by expressing concern for Joseph Frank’s physical health: “The amount of library time he must have put in would take the stuffing out of anybody, I’d imagine.” He’s responding to the photo of Frank on the back jacket of The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871, observing that “he’s not exactly hale, and probably all serious scholars of Dostoevsky are waiting to see whether Frank can hang on long enough to bring his encyclopedic study all the way up to the early 1880s.”

Of course Frank, who must have been amused by the younger writer’s solicitude, not only hung on until 2002 when he delivered the final volume, The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881, he was still around eight years later for the single-volume edition that gave him an opportunity to acknowledge “the much lamented and gifted novelist” who, a victim of chronic depression, had taken his own life in 2008.

What Wallace Needs

After getting marginally personal on the subject of Frank’s photograph, Wallace goes all the way to the other side of objectivity with the first of a series of intimate asides so much in the style of Notes from the Underground that if it were not for the double asterisks surrounding the paragraph, you might almost think he was quoting from Dostoevsky. By now Wallace definitely has my attention. What’s going on? Frank would surely have been asking the same question even as he recognized the obvious resemblance between Wallace’s manner and that of the Underground Man. Meanwhile, readers who think of Wallace as an ironist would be rolling their eyes or at least scratching their heads. In a 1996 interview with Laura Miller, Wallace mentions the conflict between “the part of us that can really wholeheartedly weep at stuff, and the part that has to live in a world of smart, jaded, sophisticated people, and wants very much to be taken seriously by those people.”

No doubt about it, the intimate questionings inspired by Dostoevsky’s Notes were not written for “those people.” Asking himself whether he’s “a good person,” Wallace wonders does he even “want to be a good person” or does he only want to “seem like one,” and does he ever actually know whether he’s morally deluding himself? Another aside on the meaning of faith is no less naked, for “Isn’t it basically crazy to believe in something there’s no proof of?” or “is needing to have faith sufficient reason for having faith? But then what kind of need are we talking about?” At this point, it begins to seem that Wallace is no longer writing for the general reader but is deliberately, “wholeheartedly” laying himself open for Frank’s benefit: “Is the real point of my life simply to undergo as little pain and as much pleasure as possible? Isn’t this a selfish way to live? Forget selfish — isn’t it awfully lonely?” Then: “But if I decide to decide there’s a different, less selfish, less lonely point to my life, won’t the reason for this decision be my desire to be less lonely, meaning to suffer less overall pain?”

What’s striking about these heartfelt soliloquies is the sense that Wallace feels the closest he can come to communicating with Dostoevsky is through Frank since it’s Frank who is most intimately committed to the life and the work, so it’s to Frank that Wallace bares his soul. A decade later, when the biographer picks up the essay again while working on a preface for the one volume edition in the all but immediate aftermath of the young writer’s suicide, how could he not help but see a foreshadowing of Wallace’s fate in the naked need expressed in those anguished asides?

Two Wives

Any writer who depends on a partner for editorial and moral support will have a special interest in the relationship between Dostoevsky and his second wife, Anna, who came to him as a stenographer and a sympathetic reader. At the age of 15, as Frank relates, Anna had “tearfully pored over installments of The Insulted and the Injured,” with special sympathy for “the tenderhearted but hapless” narrator, whose “deplorable fate” she identified with “that of the author.” Frank suggests that even before Anna became Dostoevsky’s wife, she was an invaluable aide to his life and work: “Encouraged by Anna’s cool determination, Dostoevsky settled down to a regular routine … was much calmer … and became more and more cheerful as the pages [of his short novel, The Gambler] piled up.”

After acknowledging the “arduous” two-year task accomplished by editor Mary Petrusewicz in compressing five volumes into Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, Joseph Frank takes the customary conjugal statement of gratitude to another level. Previous volumes had acknowledged Marguerite Straus Frank’s “linguistic and literary sensitivity,” and a draft of the fifth volume was actually withdrawn and rewritten in the light of her suggestions. Ahead of the one-volume edition, Frank explains that because she was dissatisfied with his treatment of “perhaps the most complex of all the female characters in Dostoevsky’s novels, the beautiful and ill-fated Nastasya Filippovna of The Idiot,” his wife had “so much altered and enriched” his own initial views that he “asked her to express them herself,” thus the pages devoted to Nastasya Filippovna in Dostoevsky: A Writer in his Time, “come from her pen.”

Marguerite Frank explained the difference of opinion in a 2009 interview with Cynthia Haven in the Stanford Report. “Joe’s not interested in Nastasya — he’s interested in the ‘Idiot,’” meaning Prince Myshkin. While Dostoevsky, like other great writers of the period, was “fascinated by fallen women,” Natasya is no fallen woman: “She’s an absolutely pure victim.”

book rev 1

Photo courtesy of L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service.

Joseph Frank’s first book, The Widening Gyre: Crisis and Mastery in Modern Literature, was published in 1963 by Rutgers University Press, whose then-director William Sloane encouraged him to edit the Selected Letters of Fyodor Dosteovsky, which was eventually published by Rutgers in 1986. Though Frank taught at Rutgers, the definitive appointment (not counting his 1953 marriage to Marguerite) came in 1954 when he arrived in Princeton to give the Christian Gauss Seminars in Criticism, a program he would later direct for 18 years. In 1976, Princeton University Press brought out the first volume of the biography, The Seeds of Revolt. 1821-1849 (1976), which won both the James Russell Lowell Prize of the Modern Language Association and Phi Beta Kappa’s Christian Gauss Award in criticism. Volume Two, The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, won the National Critics Circle Award, the first Princeton University Press book to receive that honor.

One thing the Princeton University campus has no shortage of is talented student musicians. In the second performance of concerto winners this season (winners of the 2013 Concerto Competition), the Princeton University Orchestra presented a concert this past weekend of two student pianists and a bassoonist who demonstrated the ability to maintain a high level of performance throughout an entire concerto. The three soloists — pianists Paul von Autenried and Jeff Li, and bassoonist Louisa Slosar, no doubt have been heard in smaller venues on campus (and in Ms. Slosar’s case within the University orchestra), Saturday night’s performance (the concert was also presented Friday night) in Richardson Auditorium placed these three individuals front and center with an audience thrilled with every note coming from the stage.

Freshman Paul von Autenried has not been on the University campus long enough to decide a major, yet his keyboard skills and intelligent exuberance at the piano place him way beyond his academic grade. Mr. von Autenried’s concerto with the orchestra was Bach’s Concerto No. 5 in F minor, BWV 1056, a work composed for the harpsichord, but Mr. von Autenried’s interpretation on the piano brought out drama which Bach may well have intended but did not have the instrumental technology to achieve. Conductor Ruth Ochs led a small orchestra accompanying the concerto, which Mr. von Autenried opened with dynamic effects difficult to realize on a harpsichord, with a cleanly ornamented line in the right hand and even running notes. Throughout the work, Mr. von Autenried clearly enjoyed playing, always in control of the music and communicating well with Ochs.

The second movement Largo provided a delicate melody against pizzicato strings providing a typically Bach “walking” bass. Mr. von Autenried found a great deal of expression in the music, always playing with a bit of a smile which permeated what was coming from the keyboard. Strings and piano came together for a lively third movement Presto full of well-executed running notes in the left hand of the solo part.

The other pianist featured on the program, senior Jeff Li, brought a seasoned performing background and four years of varied University musical experience to his interpretation of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major. Mr. Li’s University musical background ranges from the Princeton Composer’s Collective, to the Opera to the Laptop Orchestra. This broad approach to music, as well as clean technical proficiency, enabled Mr. Li to find the breadth of musical innovation into which Beethoven was just beginning to tap when he composed this concerto.

Conductor Michael Pratt opened the symphonic extended orchestral introduction in a crisp Viennese style, and Mr. Li began the solo line gracefully, effectively bringing out the sforzandi of the first movement. A smoothly rolling left hand marked a more lyrical section, and Mr. Pratt returned to the opening statement boldly. Mr. Li’s cadenza to the first movement was a piece unto itself, clearly transcending the early 19th century with its length, drama, and improvisatory nature. Mr. Li essentially toyed with the audience in extending the cadenza with dynamic variation and melodic force.

This was a substantial concerto for a college-age student, but Mr. Li had no trouble with the technical difficulties, musical stamina, or the elegance required to perform a Viennese work of this period. The closing Rondo was marked by chipper thirds and graceful arpeggios in the keyboard solo line against perfectly-matched flute scales played by Marcelo Rochabrun and a pair of oboes played by Katrina Maxcy and Alexa McCall.

The bassoon soloist for the evening provided a different musical experience than the two piano soloists, but showed no less stamina and command of technique. Sophomore Louisa Slosar has provided solos within orchestral works with the orchestra in numerous performances, but demonstrated the true range of her playing in Antonio Vivaldi’s 18th-century Bassoon Concerto in E minor. Vivaldi wrote close to forty concertos for the bassoon, yet one does not often hear this instrument in a substantial solo work. Under the leadership of Ruth Ochs, the strings allowed the music to essentially play itself, while Ms. Slosar offered seamless yet difficult coloratura lines with ease. Ms. Ochs cleanly played the harpsichord to accompany the solo bassoon, as Ms. Slosar played the long melodic lines with musical direction and sensitivity.

Mr. Pratt brought the full orchestra together for the closing excerpts from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, eliciting a full and rich sound among a large group of winds. Clean horns and especially lush lower strings provided a contrast to a light timpani accompaniment by Karis Schneider and wind solos by clarinetist Ryan Budnick and oboist Bo-Won Keum. From light airy Baroque to opulent 19th century, this concert not only brought out students in droves to support their own but also community residents supporting a University orchestra always playing at a high level.

Arts Council of Princeton,
Paul Robeson Center, 102 Witherspoon Street, has outdoor sculpture by Mike Gyampo on view through March 30 on the Michael Graves Terrace. From March 16-April 13, “Slaying Medusa: A Greek Myth Retold Through Self-Portraits” is on display. The opening reception is March 16, 4-6 p.m. A talk by artist Barbara Warren and curator Ricardo Barros is April 6 at 2 p.m. Visit www.artscouncil
ofprinceton.org.

Bernstein Gallery at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, has “The Fourth Grade Project,” portraits by Judy Gelles, through April 4.

Brodsky Gallery, Chauncey Conference Center, ETS, Rosedale Road, has an exhibit by Janis Blayne Paul titled “Karmic Stone: Inspiration Carved in Stone” through March 31. (609) 921-3600.

College of New Jersey Art Gallery, Pennington Road, Ewing, presents “Value Added: Artists’ Perspectives on the Meaning of Worth” March 20-April 18.

D&R Greenway, 1 Preservation Place, has “Sky Gazing,” with works by several artists including Lucy Graves McVicker, Charles McVicker, Deb Brockway, Lora Durr, and others, through May 2. “Perspective,” a photography show, is in the Olivia Rainbow Student Gallery through April 4. Call (609) 924-4646 before visiting.

Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum in Cadwalader Park, Parkside Avenue, Trenton, has through May 25, “Trenton’s Educational Legacy: The New Lincoln School.” Through April 19, “More Than a Rug: Tapestries, Paintings & Sculpture” brings items from the David Bosted Collection. A gallery talk is March 24, 2 p.m., by Mr. Bosted, on African Textiles. A Chinese painting lecture demonstration by Grace Ju Miller is April 7 at 2 p.m. Call (609) 989-3632 or visit www.ellarslie.org.

Firestone Library at Princeton University, has “Your True Friend and Enemy: Princeton and the Civil War” in the Mudd Manuscript Library through July 31. “A Republic in the Wilderness: Treasures of American History from Jamestown to Appomattox” is on view through August.

Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell, has “Dancing Lights” by Larry Parsons and works by Samuel Vovsi, March 15-April 14. Visit photogallery14.com.

Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street, has photographs from its collection in the Princeton Pride Gallery. “We Love Princeton: Stories from the Street” and “Einstein at Home” are also on view. For more information visit www.princetonhistory.org.

Lucas Gallery, Princeton University Lewis Center for the Arts, 185 Nassau Street, has “Prosthetic Gods,” prints, photography and assemblage by senior art students Leana Hirschfeld-Kroen and John O’Neill, through March 19.

Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, presents “The Pine Barrens: A Legacy of Preservation. Photographs by Richard Speedy” through April 14. On March 21 at 7 p.m., Amy Karpati lectures on “From Flora to Fire: The Ecological Story of the New Jersey Pine Barrens.” Tickets are $12 ($10 for Friends of Morven). Visit www.morven.org.

New Hope Arts Center, 2 Stockton Avenue, New Hope, Pa., presents “Continuum: The Emerging Image,” master and emerging artists, through March 23. Call (215) 862-9606.

The Princeton University Art Museum has “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” through June 9. “Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy, and American Portraiture” is on view through June 30. Museum hours: 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. Call (609) 258-3788.

West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, hosts “Energy in Motion,” a photography show, through April 27. Visit www.westwindsorarts.org.

NOW, FOR MY NEXT TRICK: Street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) gesticulates magically to perform yet another spectacular illusion before the crowd of onlookers. Steve is so successful with his street act, that he is able to draw away the people who would have attended the headlining show given by Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell, not shown) and Anton Marvelton (not shown) at Bally’s. In order to save their reputations, Burt tries to outdo Steve’s illusions in the street.

NOW, FOR MY NEXT TRICK: Street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) gesticulates magically to perform yet another spectacular illusion before the crowd of onlookers. Steve is so successful with his street act, that he is able to draw away the people who would have attended the headlining show given by Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell, not shown) and Anton Marvelton (not shown) at Bally’s. In order to save their reputations, Burt tries to outdo Steve’s illusions in the street.

Back in 2003, Jim Carrey was upstaged as the title character of Bruce Almighty by scene-stealing Steve Carell who was the TV newscaster Evan Baxter. Consequently, Carrey wasn’t even around for the sequel, Evan Almighty, a spinoff which was all about Carell’s expanded role.

Turnabout is fair play, and a decade later we find Carell overshadowed here by a rejuvenated Carrey. The viewing public benefits, because the two have reunited and they’re better than ever as magicians who are competing to outdo each other in an escalating game of one-upmanship.

Directed by Don Scardino (NBC-TV’s 30 Rock), The Incredible Burt Wonderstone also features a stellar supporting cast that includes Alan Arkin, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, James Gandolfini, Brad Garrett, and Jay Mohr, as well as amusing cameo appearances by David Copperfield, CNN’s Erin Burnett, and MSNBC’s Richard Wolffe.

The picture’s premise is easy to follow. Burt Wonderstone (Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Buscemi) have been doing magic tricks together since childhood, when they first teamed up to entertain their classmates. Thirty years later, they are sharing top billing on the marquee as “Burt & Anton: A Magical Friendship at Bally’s in Las Vegas.”

However, they’ve come to despise each other, primarily because of Burt’s massive ego. As a result, their act has grown stale, and this gives the street performer Steve Gray (Carrey) a chance to steal their thunder with his bizarre stunts, such as not blinking for days on end.

When the newcomer captures the public’s imagination, attendance at Burt and Anton’s shows declines, and it’s not long before they feel the pressure to match Gray in outrageousness. But after Anton breaks his ankles and some ribs during their first dangerous stunt, Burt is forced to go up against Gray by himself.

The ensuing competition in illusions contrasts Carrey’s over-the-top antics with Carell’s droll tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, and in this critic’s opinion, Carrey’s sight gags are much better than Carell’s dry wit. The battle of competing comedy styles is won hands-down by the rambunctious rubber-faced Carrey!

Excellent (***½). Rated PG-13 for profanity, sexuality, dangerous stunts, and a drug-related incident. Running time: 100 minutes. Distributor: Warner Brothers.

March 6, 2013

book revIf this column were a film, I’d begin with a close-up of Robert Mitchum’s hands in Night of the Hunter (1955), where he plays a psychopathic preacher who has LOVE tattooed on the knuckles of one hand and HATE on the knuckles of the other. Then I’d cut to the bizarre scene in Gilda (1946) between estranged lovers, Glenn Ford’s Johnny and Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, where they express their deep mutual detestation, Gilda saying, “I hate you, too, Johnny,” as they move closer to one another. “I hate you so much,” closer, closer, “I think I’m going to die from it.” As they kiss, passionately, she repeats in a voice that makes you feel that she means every word, “I think I’m going to die from it.”

The protagonist of Alexander Theroux’s vast, rich, diabolically labyrinthine enterprise, Darconville’s Cat (Doubleday 1981, 704 pages) dies from an overdose of both emotions. This Divine Comedy plumbing the circles of love and hate was included by Anthony Burgess in Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939. Besides being nominated for a National Book Award, it also made the Good Reads list of the 100 Top Literary Novels of All Time.

For almost five years I scoured secondhand bookstores and book sales looking for Darconville’s Cat, my interest aroused by Theroux’s massive tour de force Laura Warholic: or the Sexual Intellectual (2007), which I wrote about here in February 2008. In spite of Darconville’s stature, not a single bookseller I asked in the U.S., Canada, or England had heard of it; the only Theroux they knew was Alexander’s brother Paul. Last October I gave up the quest, ordered the novel online, and began reading.

Five months later here I am still in one piece and thankful that in spite of some dicey moments amid the cliffs and crags along the way, I achieved the summit of Mt. Darconville last week. If I could give a pep talk to the exhausted, fainthearted readers I saw cowering and panting in shelters along the way, I’d urge them to struggle to their feet and soldier on, for it would be a great loss to miss out on the inspired last chapters of the doomed romance of Alaric Darconville and Isabel Rawsthrone, two names Poe would admire. In truth, you can feel the shadow of the divine Edgar hovering over Darconville’s conclusion, which takes place in the drafty ancestral palazzo in Venice where the dying author is writing his love-hate epic.

Is It Unreadable?

By now it goes without saying that reading Darconville is a challenge. It takes time, patience, and stamina. If you need encouragement, look at the reviews by people on the Good Reads blog suggesting a “best-book-ever” level of enthusiasm. Some recently posted comments: “seductive by nature and intellectual by design”; “there was not a moment when I wished it was over, not even when it really was over”: “haven’t read anything like this … a rarity of rarities, of which there is a huge dearth in the world of literature”; “a stupefying triumph of superhuman eloquence”; “my favorite book of all time”; “among my top ten all-time favorites.”

One reader speaks for many when mentioning the need to “pull out my dictionary on almost every page,” and an industrious individual on the Good Reads blog has searched for and defined, everything from “alloplasts” on page vii of the introductory Explicitur to “vulnerary” on page 698. However, my advice to climbers attempting to ascend this storm-wracked mountain is to hold tight to the rope-line of the Darconville-Isabel relationship, keep it firmly in hand against all unearthly, ungodly, sublunary distractions, and don’t stop to look up every single word along the way (you’ll never make it out of the base camp), just enjoy the blighters in the abstract, or else for the crazy poetry, the way you enjoy the names Theroux invents for his characters, like those of Darconville’s colleagues at Quinsy College for women, Miss Dessicquint, the assistant dean who looks like Nosferatu, or Miss Throwswitch, the drama teacher, not to mention the students in his class, including Scarlet Foxwell, LeHigh Hialeah, Hallowe’ena Rampling, and the ravishing Hypsipyle Poore, who at one point early on seems to be being groomed to be the object of Darconville’s passion.

Glorious Vengeance

Apparently there was a real-life Isabel who actually abandoned the real-life Alexander Theroux at the altar, which motivated him to take revenge by writing the novel that became Darconville’s Cat, or so he claims in a 1978 New York Times Magazine article. Theroux calls revenge the “single most informing element of great world literature,” transcending even “love and war.” As an example, he cites George Orwell’s claim that among a writer’s primary motivations is “to get your own back on grownups who snubbed you in childhood.” Darconville teems and pulses with the power and glory of vengeance writ fantastically large. No other novel from any time or place that I can think of comes close for sheer excess of payback accompanied by literary bonuses, sideshows, thrill rides, and special features. The compulsively satirical scope of the production suggests that Theroux was also settling some scores and righting some wrongs that related not just to the girl and her lover or lovers but to the entire community, the college, the town, the region, and the world. Of course he was also simply having a lot of writerly fun.

Come to think of it, how much fun would it be to imagine reading the novel over Isabel’s shoulder? Judging from the 1969-1973 span of his stint at Longwood College in Farmville, Virginia, Theroux would have been 29, the original Isabel 18, when they met. Which means that by the time she first held the published book in her hands she’d have been married eight years and would be pushing 30 and perhaps raising children. One thing Theroux counted on was that the dimensions of his revenge would be reflected in the magnitude of the vehicle. Merely opening the mighty volume, she’d be hard put not to feel some awe at the tangible enormity of the thing. Doubleday presented it in a form worthy of a work of lasting worth. The pages alone have an elegance relative to the norm, the edges evenly uneven, not dull and flat, and, more important, the cover, from a painting by the author himself, exudes an 18-19th century patina worthy of the protagonist’s noble d’Arconville pedigree. The handsome, slightly flushed face could represent any number of doomed romantic heroes including Goethe’s Werther, Poe’s Roderick Usher, Theroux himself in a self-portrait as protagonist, or John Keats, whose sonnet “Dark Star” Darconville amusingly teaches to the girls of Quinsy College.

Isabel Reading

A glance at certain chapter titles scattered throughout the voluminous contents would have alerted Isabel to the devious intentions of her old flame. But how could she resist a love-hate letter 704 pages long containing eloquent, stirring rhapsodies on her beauty and deeply felt accounts of the idyllic splendor of the relationship? And how would she deal with the section where Darconville’s satanic Harvard mentor Dr. Crucifer delivers his brutal, unabated, protracted, and definitive condemnation of the female sex. Her hair would surely be standing on end as she read, in spite of herself, the nine-page chapter brimming over with Crucifer’s manifold schemes for ways that she, Isabel, could be tortured, mutilated, or exterminated (“Drill holes into each of her teeth. wire them, and drag her over miles of steaming bitumen! …. Strip off portions of her skin, paint them, and then use them for tiny kites”). And how gratifying for Theroux if the distracted woman finds herself inexplicably, perversely engaged by the horror of it all, given the audacity and witty felicity with which her former lover sets his madcap love-hate goblins dancing and raving.

Better yet when Isabel lets herself be drawn into the chapter titled “The Supreme Ordeal,” where Theroux is able to move from the mode of Cruciferian overkill to a fully felt, devastatingly graphic and real account of Isabel’s rejection of Darconville, she may even find herself hurting for him as she refused to do in real life. Tempted still further into the dark woods of the narrative, she would tiptoe behind Darconville, who has a gun in his pocket and Crucifer’s misogynistic admonitions screaming in his brain, until she came up against the moment where her fictional alter ego’s life was on the line. Here, with everything turning on a single word, the author has her (and has us). She’s his, the reader-victim weeping, ravished, emotionally undone by his ardent and malevolent genius. Meanwhile Theroux is setting up the Venetian denouement to ensure that she will suffer with him, again in spite of herself, looking over the shoulder of the man dying for love of her, as he lays his magnum opus at her feet, “a past, a memory, calling him back to search and remember what in the knowledge that is revealed at the heart of all violation can be transfigured by the hand of art.”

About the Cat

I knew my quest for a copy of Darconville’s Cat had tipped into obsession when I found myself hopefully scouting the Pets and Animals sections of various secondhand bookshops in case some incompetent clerk had carelessly filed it there. As his name suggests, Spellvixit has little in common with the cat that will be appearing on Broadway in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; this is no “poor slob without a name,” no sentimental deus ex machina, this is Darconville’s true mate (always  a “he,” never an “it”), his spiritual companion, and you know he’s doomed when Spellvixit runs away as he’s rushing to catch a plane that will take him to his “supreme ordeal” with Isabel. When he returns to the ancestral palazzo on Corte del Gatto (where else?) to write and die, he’s in Spellvexit’s city, for the cat grew up there with Darconville’s grandmother. It would take another column to begin to fathom the cat’s significance in the haunted chambers of Theroux’s masterpiece; suffice it to say that in his last moment of life, Darconville cries out “desperately and loud, “My cat! My cat!” 

Ryan James Brandau’s concerts with Princeton Pro Musica up to this point have been a process of adjustment — masterworks with which the ensemble is comfortable and performs well to solidify a new relationship between chorus and conductor. Pro Musica’s performance Saturday night in the Princeton University Chapel was a sign of the new direction Dr. Brandau has chosen for the chorus — one which includes early music outside of the ensemble’s usual scope of repertory. Pro Musica’s concert was billed as Poulenc, Faure, “and more,” and it was the “more” which provided some of the most interesting music of the evening.

Dr. Brandau programmed several anniversary pieces on this program, including works of Poulenc (for the 50th anniversary of his death) and a piece by 20th-century composer Arvo Pärt in honor of the death of Benjamin Britten. Dr. Brandau has created a 24-voice chamber chorus out of Pro Musica’s roster of 100, and used this ensemble to perform the Pärt work with two other pieces linked by Gregorian chant.

Pärt’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten is built on a single scale, much like a phrase of chant. Dr. Brandau split the chorus on either side of the small orchestra, beginning the work with almost imperceptible upper strings. Pärt’s one-movement work builds in intensity in the same manner as Samuel Barber’s famed Adagio For Strings, effectively jarring the audience with a loud chime to move the piece to its high point. Dr. Brandau moved through the first three pieces on the program without pause, following Pärt’s Cantus with an extended 12th-century Gregorian chant sung from the back of the chapel by four women. Pro Musica has not ventured often into this period of music, and the singers surely appreciated the chance to sing in smaller combinations.

In Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s setting of the same “Salve Regina,” the two halves of the Chamber Chorus answered each other well (with three men providing chant from the back of the hall), effectively handling the chromaticism which marks music of the early Baroque. Through this piece, the University Chapel proved to be a good space for antiphonal singing.

Dr. Brandau pulled the whole chorus together for works by two composers crossing paths in the same century but writing in two very different styles. Francis Poulenc’s Motets pour Un Temps de Pènitence, appropriate for the season of Lent, contain great intensity in dissonance and dynamics, and Pro Musica took an edgy and decisive vocal approach to the text. With the whole chorus singing at full volume, the upper sound was a bit strident at times, with vibrato that seemed a bit out of control in the space. The second motet had more flow, with the reprise of the opening text showing the best choral blend. The soprano sound was more under control in the third motet, with the lower three voice parts particularly well blended.

The seven-movement Requiem of Gabriel Fauré showed Pro Musica at its vocal best. Dr. Brandau kept the opening Kyrie moving right along, with a light but clean sectional tenor sound and an overall choral effect that matched the violas well. It was clear from his previous performance with Pro Musica that bass-baritone Dashon Burton would have no trouble filling the hall with a rich resonant sound. In both the Offertorium and Libera Me movements, Mr. Burton showed great strength in vocal sound, calling especially well for the “dreadful day” of reckoning in the Libera Me.

Soprano Clara Rottsalk also filled the University Chapel’s vast space well with a voice that had a solid core of sound, displaying particular sensitivity to the text. Concertmaster Owen Dalby provided a sweet top to the sound in two movements, especially when joined by harpist Sarah Fuller. A fourth “soloist” was the viola section, which played a consistently rich sound through the entire Requiem.

As in many Pro Musica concerts, the performance included a strictly instrumental work, and Dr. Brandau took full advantage of Pro Musica’s time in the chapel by programming Poulenc’s Concerto for Organ, Timpani and Strings. University Organist Eric Plutz showed the full effects of the five-manual chapel organ with the help of a multi-media screen, apparently the wave of the future in organ performance. Mr. Plutz showed both a light touch in the later part of the concerto and precision in timing the organ with the strings. Dr. Brandau led the orchestra well in lush melodic passages, with elegant solos provided by violist William Frampton and cellist Elizabeth Thompson.

Ryan James Brandau seems to be settling well into his position as artistic director of Princeton Pro Musica, and the chorus is responding in similar fashion. With the final concert of his debut season coming up in May, Dr. Brandau has had no trouble proving that he can take the ensemble into a new era of performance.

Arts Council of Princeton, Paul Robeson Center, 102 Witherspoon Street, has outdoor sculpture by Mike Gyampo on view through March 30 on the Michael Graves Terrace. “Structure and Flow: An Exploration of Contrasts in Abstraction” runs through March 9. A panel discussion with participating artists is March 7 at 7:30 p.m. Works by Al Aronson, Benjamin Colbert, Nancy Cohen, John Franklin, and Alyce Gottesman are included. From March 16-April 13, “Perseus Slays Medusa: A Greek Myth Retold as Self-Portraits” is on display. Visit www.artscouncil
ofprinceton.org.

Bernstein Gallery at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, has “The Fourth Grade Project,” portraits by Judy Gelles, through April 4.

Brodsky Gallery, Chauncey Conference Center, ETS, Rosedale Road, has an exhibit by Janis Blayne Paul titled “Karmic Stone: Inspiration Carved in Stone” through March 31. (609) 921-3600.

Cafe 44, 44 Leigh Avenue, has “Water, Water, Everywhere…”, photographs by Tasha O’Neill and paintings by Mary Walthan, March 15-April 15. Meet the artists March 17, 3-5 p.m.

College of New Jersey Art Gallery, Pennington Road, Ewing, presents “Value Added: Artists’ Perspectives on the Meaning of Worth” March 20-April 18.

D&R Greenway, 1 Preservation Place, has “Sky Gazing,” with works by several artists including Lucy Graves McVicker, Charles McVicker, Deb Brockway, Lora Durr, and others, through May 2. The opening reception is March 8, 5:30-7:30 p.m. “Perspective,” a photography show, is in the Olivia Rainbow Student Gallery through April 4. Call (609) 924-4646 before visiting.

Ellarslie, Trenton City Museum in Cadwalader Park, Parkside Avenue, Trenton, has through May 25, “Trenton’s Educational Legacy: The New Lincoln School.” Through April 19, “More Than a Rug: Tapestries, Paintings & Sculpture” brings items from the David Bosted Collection. A gallery talk is March 24, 2 p.m., by Mr. Bosted, on African Textiles. A Chinese painting lecture demonstration by Grace Ju Miller is April 7 at 2 p.m. Call (609) 989-3632 or visit www.ellarslie.org.

Firestone Library at Princeton University, has “Your True Friend and Enemy: Princeton and the Civil War” in the Mudd Manuscript Library through July 31. “A Republic in the Wilderness: Treasures of American History from Jamestown to Appomattox” is on view through August.

Gallery at Chapin, 4101 Princeton Pike, has works by painter Thomas Kelly, April 1-30. Call (609) 924-7206.

Gallery 14, 14 Mercer Street, Hopewell, has “Exposed,” a member exhibit, through March 10. Visit photogallery14.com.

Gourgaud Gallery, Town Hall, Cranbury, has a show of “United Federation of Teachers Painting Group” through March 29.

Grounds for Sculpture, Fairgrounds Road in Hamilton, showcases Robert Taplin’s “Heaven, Hell, and the History of Punch” in the Museum Building through April. “Mapping Memories,” an installation by Mark Parsons, is on the mezzanine of the Domestic Arts Building through March. Ming Fay’s “Canutopia” is in the East Gallery through July. In the Meadow, “THRE3” and “MYTHOS” are on view. Visit www.groundsforsculp
ture.org.

Historical Society of Princeton, Bainbridge House, 158 Nassau Street, has photographs from its collection in the Princeton Pride Gallery. “We Love Princeton: Stories from the Street” opens with a reception March 7 from 5-8 p.m. For more information visit www.princetonhistory.org.

The James A. Michener Art Museum at 138 South Pine Street in Doylestown, Pa., has “The Mind’s Eye: 50 Years of Photography by Jerry Uelsmann” through April 28. Visit www.michener
artmuseum.org.

The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street, on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, has “Lynd Ward Draws Stories: Inspired by Mexico’s History, Mark Twain, and Adventures in the Woods” through June 23. “Henri-Gabriel Ibels” is exhibited through September 8. Works by Russian artist Leonid Sokov are displayed through July 14.

Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, presents “The Pine Barrens: A Legacy of Preservation. Photographs by Richard Speedy” through April 14. Museum hours are Wednesdays-Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. on. Group tours of 10 or more can be arranged any day by advance reservation. Visit www.morven.org.

New Hope Arts Center, 2 Stockton Avenue, New Hope, Pa., presents “Continuum: The Emerging Image,” master and emerging artists, through March 23. Call (215) 862-9606.

New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton, displays “Jon Naar: Signature Photography” through May 4. Visit www.nj.gov/state/museum.

Phillips Mill, 2619 River Road, New Hope, has its Photographic Exhibition March 10-31. An awards ceremony is March 9, 6 p.m. Visit www.phillipsmill.org.

Princeton Day School Anne Reid ‘72 Art Gallery has “Wabi-Sabi” featuring works of PDS art department faculty members Stephanie Stuefer and Chris Maher, through March 7. Visit www.pds.org.

The Princeton University Art Museum has “Two Views” Atget & Friedlander” through March 10. “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe” runs through June 9. “Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy, and American Portraiture” is March 9-June 30. Museum hours: 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. Call (609) 258-3788.

Robert Beck Gallery, 204 North Union Street, Lambertville, hosts the 32nd Annual Juried Art Exhibit, “Lambertville and the Surrounding Area,” by the Lambertville Historical Society, through March 28. Call (609) 397-0951 for details.

West Windsor Arts Center, 952 Alexander Road, hosts “Energy in Motion,” a photography show, through April 27. Visit www.westwindsorarts.org.

ARGUABLY ONE OF THE MOST DANGEROUS OCCUPATIONS: Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) works in an aquarium in the south of France where she trains the notoriously dangerous killer whales. Unfortunately, one of them becomes out of control during a training session and smashes Stephanie against the side of the pool. When she is rescued, it turns out that as a result of the accident, she has lost the use of her legs and is confined to a wheelchair.

ARGUABLY ONE OF THE MOST DANGEROUS OCCUPATIONS: Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) works in an aquarium in the south of France where she trains the notoriously dangerous killer whales. Unfortunately, one of them becomes out of control during a training session and smashes Stephanie against the side of the pool. When she is rescued, it turns out that as a result of the accident, she has lost the use of her legs and is confined to a wheelchair.

Alain (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a homeless street hustler barely eking out a living in his native Belgium when he is unexpectedly given custody of his 5-year-old son Sam (Armand Verdure). Overwhelmed by the unanticipated extra responsibility, he moves to Antibes in the South of France to give the boy he barely knows to his obliging sister, Anna (Corinne Masiero), to care for.

Buff, imposing, and blessed with formidable strength, Alain soon lands part-time work as a bouncer in a trendy nearby nightclub. He also starts taking advantage of his good looks and enters into lustful, brief liaisons with the attractive customers of the club.

Elsewhere in the seaside resort town, Stephanie (Marion Cotillard), an attractive young woman, works at an aquarium where she trains Killer whales. She meets Alain one evening after he rescues her from a nasty brawl inside the cabaret.

Stephanie takes his phone number, but before she has a chance to call and thank him, she loses the use of both of her legs in an unfortunate accident when she is crushed against the side of the pool by an Orca. When the two finally meet again, she is confined to a wheelchair, and terribly depressed by the change in her life caused by the accident.

Will Alain befriend the handicapped Stephanie, or will he go right back out on the dating circuit? That is the crux of the question at the heart of Rust and Bone, a romance drama written and directed by Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips).

This love story ultimately proves far more poignant than one might expect of a picture that starts out with such an apparent boor as a protagonist. Fortunately, his character undergoes considerable development over the course of the movie.

Alain gradually gets in touch with his sensitive side to the point where he’s ready to abandon his womanizing ways and also to spend time with his neglected son. In addition to the movie unfolding against an array of beautiful backdrops, Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard give tour de force performances in Rust and Bone.

Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, profanity, graphic sexuality, and nudity. In French and English with subtitles. Running time: 120 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics.

February 27, 2013
LADY OF LEGEND: This 24” x 36” oil on canvas, “Queen Maeve,” by artist Rita Stynes Strow, depicts the legendary Queen of Connacht who, according to Irish lore, initiated the Táin Bó Cúailnge, The Cattle Raid of Cooley. Part of the Ulster Cycle, the story is an epic tale of war involving the theft of the King of Ulster’s prize bull and the youthful exploits of the hero Cú Chulainn. The painting and others by Ms. Stynes Strow will be on show in the gallery of the Princeton Charter School, 100 Bunn Drive, from March 7 through March 22.

LADY OF LEGEND: This 24” x 36” oil on canvas, “Queen Maeve,” by artist Rita Stynes Strow, depicts the legendary Queen of Connacht who, according to Irish lore, initiated the Táin Bó Cúailnge, The Cattle Raid of Cooley. Part of the Ulster Cycle, the story is an epic tale of war involving the theft of the King of Ulster’s prize bull and the youthful exploits of the hero Cú Chulainn. The painting and others by Ms. Stynes Strow will be on show in the gallery of the Princeton Charter School, 100 Bunn Drive, from March 7 through March 22.

Rita Stynes Strow has been painting since “time immemorial,” laughs the former art teacher who lives in Kingston. Inspired by her own Irish origins and tales from the Bible and Celtic mythology, Ms. Stynes Strow works magic in oil and canvas.

Her lively and colorful work will be among those shown in an upcoming exhibition at the Princeton Charter School (PCS). The exhibition is to be the first of a series of annual art shows featuring the work of local artists as well as paintings by Charter School students. It opens with a a vernissage or opening reception next Thursday, March 7 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. and continues through March 22.

In addition to several canvases by Ms. Stynes Strow, works by Catherine Arnoux, Heather Barros, Jean Becette, Mojgan Salehi, and Jannick Wildberg will be on display

The work featured has been chosen to represent different styles and methods. The idea is to emphasize the importance of artistic individuality and subjectivity to the school’s students. “We wanted to bring local artists to the campus and involve our students from kindergarten through eighth grade,” says Amanda Castner, the PCS art teacher for the school’s 348 students, 100 of whom are participating with the artists.

Ms. Stynes Strow, who has two grandchildren at PCS, Zoe and Cassian Obierne, was delighted to be asked to participate in the exhibition. Her oil paintings, she says, strive to evoke the historic and the mysterious emotions of the Celtic people. “The traditional knot work I use has the inherent strength of design well suited to this goal,” she says.

Using acrylics, Catherine Arnoux seeks to reproduce the colors of nature or invent colors of her own. Unlike the illustrative paintings by Ms. Stynes Strow, Ms. Arnoux’s work is abstract. Both artists, however, began painting at a young age. Ms. Arnoux still has her very first paint box, bought in the Quartier Latin in Paris when she was 12-years-old. “My grandmother always had dahlias in her garden and I was amazed by their colors and their intricate patterns, especially the heart of the flower,” Ms. Arnoux recalls. “For me, painting is more about showing colors, either reproducing the ones nature decides for us, or inventing the ones we decide to master in an abstract painting. But always, you mix it and it suddenly appears on the canvas as magic.”

Flowers also provide inspiration for Mojgan Salehi, who moved toward art at an early age as well. The artist describes art as a “magical process” she uses to express her love of gardening and flowers. “Painting is my key to the secret garden, my way down the rabbit hole, my looking glass,” she says. “It fills me with a sense of accomplishment and integrity, and has proven to be a most amenable vehicle for translating inner vision to outer reality.”

Through mixed media including including charcoal, oil, ink, and clay, Heather Barros creates landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. Besides being a working artist, Ms. Barros is an accomplished teacher, running her own art school, Art Collaborations, at Princeton Academy.

Before moving to Brittany, Jean Becette taught art for four years at the Princeton Junior School and for 12 years at the Princeton Friends School. In France, he paints the lush seascapes of the Cotes d’Armor (formerly known as the Côtes-du-Nord on Brittany’s north coast).

Jannick Wildberg creates abstract paintings in oil, plaster, fabric, and pigments to create texture and evoke the elements of nature. Her realistic portraits are intended to capture the physical uniqueness of her subjects while representing the inherent energy and vibrancy of life inherent in each. Ms. Wildberg says of her art that it “springs from a desire to communicate about the intense experience of being in this world, about our need to slow it down perhaps, or to gather ourselves and seek tranquility.”

Besides large-scale oil portraits, the exhibition includes abstract works by Ms. Wildberg, who uses plaster, fabric, and pigments to create texture and to engage on a more visceral level.

Besides the eclectic artworks on view by these adult artists, the PCS exhibition will also include work by Princeton Charter students who collaborated with Ms. Barros and Mr. Becette.

The public is invited to attend the opening reception at which light refreshments will be served. For more information, contact PCS art teacher Amanda Castner at (856) 217-4922 or acastner@princetoncharter.org.

DVD revWhile channel-surfing the other night, I found myself watching the beginning of a film I’d already seen and had no intention of seeing again. That’s Fred MacMurray slumped at a desk in the film noir shadows of the headquarters of the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company. He’s talking into a dictaphone, about to confess to his boss his part in a sordid tale of claim-rigging, murder, and betrayal. The room onscreen is so deep in the murk of its mood it seems to be glowering at me from the third dimension. Never mind that the man slowly bleeding to death is being played by one of my least favorite actors, he’s sinking his teeth into the role of a lifetime, a mortally wounded insurance salesman named Walter Neff mouthing the hardboiled poetry of Raymond Chandler, with contributions by director Billy Wilder, from a novella by James M. Cain. That’s all she wrote, I’m stuck, can’t turn it off, can’t stop watching, can’t change the channel, Turner Classic Movies scores again.

As the scene shifts to a daylight flashback that shows Neff driving up to a nifty little Spanish colonial hillside chateau, I shout out, “It’s Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck’s house in Los Felix!” and my wife, who grew up in L.A. and loves this movie, comes running.

The house is still there, though according to underthehollywoodsign.com, the reality is not in Los Felix but in the Hollywood Dell. “It was one of those California Spanish houses everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago,” Neff is telling us. The interior, according to the screenplay, is “Spanish craperoo in style” with a wrought-iron staircase curving down from the second floor.

And look who’s coming down that unworthy staircase.

By now my wife’s sitting in her usual place beside me to enjoy one of the seminal moments in film noir played to tawdry perfection by a woman we feel as close to as we would to a glamorous beloved relative who’s been dead for 22 years. We’re familiar with every nuance of her voice, with the way she walks, and moves, and we can imagine her having a laugh with the crew about that big blond wig she’s wearing and the ankle bracelet or “anklet,” as Walter Neff calls it, his eyes fastened on the ankle it’s fastened to while he snidely fields sinister queries from the shady lady about her husband’s life insurance policy. Call it what you will, the effect that little adornment has on Walter is devastating. Stanwyck’s anklet is to Double Indemnity as Rosebud is to Citizen Kane, everything evolves from it, and Walter’s a goner the moment he sees it, as is Stanwyck’s about-to-be-double-indemnified husband.

According to Shadows of Suspense, the documentary accompanying the Universal Legacy Series 2-Disc DVD of Double Indemnity, when Fred MacMurray was offered the part, his are-you-kidding-me response was, “I’m a saxophone player. I do light comic stuff with Claudette Colbert.” Barbara Stanwyck was afraid the film would ruin her career. The beauty of casting a “regular guy” like MacMurray was that audiences would be fascinated by the there’s-a-killer-in-all-of-us aspect, and as a result the glib, regular-guy insurance agent Walter Neff has become one of the rare characters from vintage Hollywood whose name is as much a part of movie lore as the name of the star playing him. If the same can’t be said for Phyllis Dietrichson, the name of the scheming wife, it’s because Stanwyck’s allure overwhelms the impersonation. MacMurray is a mere mortal transcending himself in a killer role. Stanwyck is a luminary from a loftier realm who in 1944 was said to be the highest paid woman in the United States.

Academy Awards 1944

Besides being the only film noir to come close to winning a Best Picture Oscar (it lost to the upbeat, feel-good, priests-can-be-charming box-office smash, Going My Way), Double Indemnity also fits the sub genre of the so-called “buddy movie” most recently represented by Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The affectionate rapport between Neff and his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson in his prime) creates a sympathetic contrast to the cold-blooded bond between the lovers. Whenever Keyes fumbles to find a light for his cigar, Neff is there to light it for him with a playful but caring “I love you too.” Walter and Phyllis consummate the relationship by killing one another; but when Neff is dying in the hall outside the office where the story began, it’s Keyes who lights his cigarette.

The various talking heads in Shadows of Suspense all agree that the Academy’s recognition of Double Indemnity (seven Oscar nominations), along with its box office success, helped ignite the film noir boom that took place between the mid-1940s and the advent of CinemaScope ten years later. While the wartime American public “had lost its innocence and wanted more adult stories,” according to film noir authority Eddie Muller, the Motion Picture Academy couldn’t stoop to honoring so disreputable and nascent a genre with an actual Oscar. Probably the most deserving of the nominees, along with Wilder as Best Director, was the cinematographer John F. Seitz, who steeps scenes in lavish depths of darkness that are remarkable even for film noir. While Barbara Stanwyck was at least nominated for Best Actress (Ingrid Bergman won for Gaslight), MacMurray and Robinson did not even make the cut for the Best Actor and Supporting Actor Oscars, which went to Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald in the Going My Way landslide.

My only quibble with Shadows of Suspense is that it opens with Muller’s declaration that film noir “for all intents and purposes began with Double Indemnity.” This is a shaky generalization at best when you consider that Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady was released eight months earlier in February 1944 and that Murder, My Sweet, Edward Dmytryk’s adaptation of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window also appeared the same year. As far as that goes, noir themes can be dated back to films like Stranger On the Third Floor (1940), I Wake Up Screaming and The Maltese Falcon (1941), Kid Glove Killer and This Gun for Hire (1942), to mention only a few.

Oscar Night

I’ll come clean: we skipped the Oscars this year to watch David Hare’s two-hour-long Page Eight on PBS because we liked the cast, especially Bill Nighy. While I’m all for one night every year being set aside to celebrate the movies, I have a low tolerance for all the glitzy scripted back and forth, the unbelievably tasteless jokes (like the cute one about the assassination of Lincoln), and I have a lifelong aversion to watching “beautiful people” embarrass themselves in public. If there were an over the counter drug that prevented cringing and squirming, I would need half a bottle to get through an hour of Oscar night. Argo was a worthy winner, but I doubt I’ll ever see it again, except maybe to enjoy the great lines dished out by Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who also lent his inimitable presence to Flight. The fact that Goodman has never been nominated for an Oscar, particularly for the role that launched a thousand quotes, exposes an essential and enduring Academy blind spot. Fifty years from now somebody somewhere will be streaming The Big Lebowski and laughing at lines from Walter and Donny and the Dude they know by heart, but will anyone be visiting this year’s big winners? I doubt it. The Dude abides and so does Barbara Stanwyck’s anklet.

Born February 27

When you look at who was born on this date, you might be forgiven for thinking Oscar himself first saw the light on the 27th of February.

For instance there’s William Demerest (1892-1983), one of the best character actors of his time, a man who performed pratfalls elaborate enough to convulse the comic gods. His one Oscar nomination was for Best Supporting Actor in 1947’s The Jolson Story, but he’s at his best in Preston Sturges films like The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Another member of the 27 Club is Franchot Tone (1905-1968), who netted a Best Actor nomination in 1935 for Mutiny On the Bounty.

Perhaps the most unlikely nominee ever for a major award was tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon (born 2/27/23), whose rollercoaster career included jazz stardom, drug addiction, prison time, comeback as a dominant player, and then, five years before his death in 1990, being cast by Bernard Tavernier as the tenor legend in Round Midnight, for which Long Tall Dex landed a Best Actor nomination and a seat at the 1986 Oscar ceremonies.

One of two well-known writers with Hollywood credits born on this date, Irwin Shaw (1913-1984) was nominated as co-writer of the screenplay for Talk of the Town, but the single most prodigious generator of Oscar-winning product was John Steinbeck (1902-1968). Besides scoring nominations for writing Viva Zapata, A Medal for Benny, and Lifeboat, he produced a series of novels that Hollywood feasted on to a degree unmatched by his peers, the biggest winner being Grapes of Wrath, which took two Oscars out of seven nominations in 1940.

Of the three actresses born on February 27, four-time nominee Joanne Woodward (1930 —) won a Best Actress Oscar in 1957 for Three Faces of Eve. Joan Bennett (1910-1990) never won an Oscar, nor was she nominated, but any time you talk film noir, she comes into the conversation as a femme fatale in Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Last but definitely not least, there’s the two-time Best Actress winner James Agee greeted with a notice in The Nation she must have cherished from the age of 12 on. Writing in December of 1944, Agee admits, “Frankly, I doubt that I am qualified to arrive at any sensible assessment of Miss Elizabeth Taylor. Ever since I first saw the child, two or three years ago, in I forget what minor role in what movie, I have been choked with the peculiar sort of admiration I might have felt if we were both in the same grade of primary school.” Later, after giving her performance in National Velvet a more objective analysis, he adds, “She strikes me, however, if I may resort to conservative statement, as being rapturously beautiful.” Taylor, who died in March 2011 at 79, was nominated five times for Best Actress and won twice, for Butterfield 8 (1960) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966).

The two-disc Double Idemnity DVD is available at the Princeton Public Library.

FEVERISH FANTASIES; Anna (Savannah Hankinson) encounters a mysterious French chef (­Billy Cohen) on her imaginary travels in Europe with her brother, in Theatre Intime’s production of Paula Vogel’s Obie Award-winning “The Baltimore Waltz” (1992), written in response to the death of Ms. Vogel’s brother from AIDS. The “Baltimore Waltz” is playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through March 2.

FEVERISH FANTASIES; Anna (Savannah Hankinson) encounters a mysterious French chef (­Billy Cohen) on her imaginary travels in Europe with her brother, in Theatre Intime’s production of Paula Vogel’s Obie Award-winning “The Baltimore Waltz” (1992), written in response to the death of Ms. Vogel’s brother from AIDS. The “Baltimore Waltz” is playing at the Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus through March 2.

Inspired by her brother’s death from AIDS and his unfulfilled request near the end of his life that she join him on an excursion to Europe, Paula Vogel wrote The Baltimore Waltz in 1989. It’s a play, Ms. Vogel stated in an interview, “about processing grief. It’s about love between brothers and sisters. And there’s a lot of joy in grief, there’s a lot of celebration to grief, there’s a lot of comedy in grief.”

And, she might have added, there can be a lot of confusion in grief, which this play manifests through the troubled fantasies of Anna, its mostly autobiographical protagonist. Fortunately, Theatre Intime and talented director Emma Watt have assembled an exceptional trio of actors to ensure that the wildly farcical elements hit home, the tenderness of this brother-sister relationship comes across, and the entertainment value here prevails over confusions in plot and tone.

The entire play actually takes place in a hospital in Baltimore, but, more significantly, the action of this play is set in the mind of Anna (Savannah Hankinson), as she envisions the trip to Europe with her brother. First major confusion arises as Anna imagines herself, not her brother, as the terminal patient, and the illness she imagines is ATD, acquired toilet disease, apparently contracted from sitting on the toilet seats used by the children in the elementary school where she teaches.

Her brother Carl (Daniel Rattner), wearing his pajamas with a pink triangle over the pocket throughout the play, has just been fired from his job as children’s librarian at the San Francisco Public Library. Carl decides they will seek a cure for his sister in Europe. After a comical scene of defiant departure from the library and a scene of frustrating medical mumbo-jumbo with the doctor (Billy Cohen, who also plays more than a dozen other parts throughout the evening), they are off to the continent.

The scenes speed by at a feverish pitch — thirty in all, during the hour and forty minutes without intermission — as Anna and Carl travel through France, Holland, Germany, and eventually to Vienna to find the mysterious Dr. Todesrocheln, a urine-drinking urologist. Amidst Anna’s frenetic quest to have as much sex with as many different men as possible and Carl’s entanglement in what seems to be a cloak-and-dagger intrigue out of the 1949 Graham Greene-Joseph Cotton-Orson Welles movie classic The Third Man, the comedy is hilarious and the farcical tone prevails, despite nostalgic reminiscences about the past and fears for the future.

The Baltimore Waltz is replete with bawdy humor, clever movie allusions, sardonic medical satire, and a feast of language. The nature of the subject matter here, as well as the 24-year gap between the world of the AIDS crisis in 1989 and the world of contemporary audiences, accounts for some disjointedness in tone in this play, but the three well cast, energetic, and dynamically engaged actors prevail over all confusions and the script’s occasional excesses in plot and cleverness.

At the center of the play, Ms. Hankinson’s Anna, alternating between trench coat and negligee, is focused, in character, and appealing throughout all the vicissitudes of action and emotion during the course of the evening. She undergoes the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief and much more, creating a sympathetic, warm, credible character in her relationship with her brother and with the vast range of others she meets on her bizarre journey.

Mr. Rattner’s Carl provides a worthy counterpart to his sister Anna. He is thoroughly believable, articulate, and appealing in his affection for his sister, his attempts to help her and his peculiar “Third Man” intrigues—stuffed rabbit (a sexual symbol?) in hand — through their European travels.

Mr. Cohen’s versatility and gift for comedy serve him well as The Third Man, Doctor, and numerous other roles of widely ranging ages, nationalities, and dispositions. With a vast array of costumes, hats, props, and wild wigs, Mr. Cohen delivers a high-powered dose of humor and helps to set the prevailing tone in every scene where he appears. Ms. Watson has directed this abundantly capable, committed trio with a fine sense of pacing, a rich offering of humor, and a deeply intelligent understanding of the right balance of celebration and mourning to bring clarity to much of the confusion in the text.

Set design by Aryeh Stein-Azen and Ben Schaffer establishes an appropriately simple space for this frequently changing, surrealistic comedic drama. A hospital bed is the major set piece, with a rolling hospital curtain, a chair, a table, and a platform upstage. A colorful, scenic backdrop represents highlights of the European sites Anna visits in her fantasy.

Marissa Applegate’s nuanced lighting contributes significantly to the shifting moods and scenes of the play, also to the shocking contrast — most evident at the play’s end — between Anna’s vivid fantasy journeys and the starkly-lit reality of the Baltimore hospital. (A slide show, supposedly of scenes of Europe but actually of scenes of Baltimore, should have appeared mid-way through the play, but apparently misfired on Saturday night. The actors covered skillfully with no apparent disruption in the action.)

Erin Valentine’s costumes and Jack Moore’s props help to create the multiple characters and the whimsical, often exaggerated atmosphere of the play, as the tone fluctuates from hospital sterile to child’s-nursery playful to Third Man noir.

How I Learned to Drive, Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about family and sexual abuse, will probably always be the play she is best remembered for, but Theatre Intime’s superb production of The Baltimore Waltz provides striking evidence of the enduring power and humor in this earlier gem.