Archive for the CRITICISM/ REVIEWS Category

The Wild Party’s Over (But Not Really, You Have One More Chance)

Posted in Clown, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, Rock and Pop with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2017 by travsd

We have been following the progress of Jennifer Harder’s The Wild Party’s Over with great avidity ever since she won the well-deserved First of May Award from the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, which gives small grants to deserving variety artists to develop projects. She chose to adapt Joseph Moncure March’s book-length Jazz Age poem The Wild Party, an admirably daunting task, as it has been adapted for the stage before. We were privileged to be at an early reading she and her artistic partner Charley Layton gave at the Way Station, and to sit in on an early brainstorming session for the project. The pull of the material on Harder is not surprising; her former stage character Bathtub Jen evoked similar Jazz Age echoes of illicit, criminal life choices, of life on the lam.

The Wild Party is simultaneously a celebration of bohemian culture and a tragedy. Only the timid would take it as a cautionary tale. I’d much rather experience these events and LIVE… than last until I’m 95 without experiencing any such wild parties. (I was going to add that I might feel differently if I ever found myself at a party that ended up with a corpse on the floor, but then I remembered that I HAVE been to one that ended up with a corpse on the floor and I STILL find myself longing to be at such parties — just not that particular one.) Harder’s adaptation is wonderfully successful at evoking that feeling of nocturnal seduction as embodied by the Siren call of music. The cast of four (Harder, Layton, Natti Vogel and Stephen Heskett) are not just an acting ensemble but a rock band, working Blondie and Velvet Underground covers into the narrative in place of the Hot Jazz which would have been the original inspiration. Harder, as always, sings and plays trumpet; Vogel sings and plays piano; Layton mans accordion and guitar; and Heskett, to my surprise and delight played percussion and drums in the solid and basic manner of Mo Tucker. 

Heskett surprised in any number of ways. His normal stage presence is as a decent, nice All American fellow; here he is the villain of the piece, a rapey, woman-hating creep in clown make-up, part Joker, part Juggalo. The other three are manifestations of their normal stage characters in the variety world; Vogel doubles as narrator. There is more than a little Brechtianism in the presentation. It’s a wonderful showcase for the talents of all, and at just under an hour, completely lean and mean, and lacking in dead spots. Know that it’s a workshop, a work-in-progress, but my main takeaway is that it has lots of potential as a bookable, tour-worthy thing, with its compact troupe, minimal sets, and loads and loads of vivacity flying off the performers.

I was so jazzed by the show I was inspired to interview folks afterward…only to discover afterwards that the ubuiquitous Adam McGovern had already done so, and perfectly too, so I herewith direct the curious to his blogpiece here at HiLow. 

The Wild Party’s Over but not really — there’s one more performance on at the Tank April 20. I highly recommend it! And if you do attend, know that the fifth voice in the production, including the annoying neighbor is the show’s director Chris Rozzi. Chris is currently playing the Joe Weber part in my Weber and Fields revival project, which you can check out in the Metropolitan Playhouse’s gala on April 25. Don’t miss that either! 

Milberger on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Jews/ Show Biz, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2017 by travsd

We enjoyed the pilot of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel a great deal — in fact, enough to write our own review. But we knew someone who could write a better one: multi-talented actress, comedienne, screenwriter/playwright, podcast host, comedy scholar and Gracie Allen expert Lauren Milberger.  Her Gracie Allen guest post here five years ago is in our all-time top 25! I just knew she’d have great things to say about the new show, and she did. I turn you now over to her:

The Marvelous Mrs Maisel: A Woman in Redux

Many people would consider the modern Golden Age of Comedy to be the 1950s and 60s, when what we know today as stand-up became all the rage and television was in its infancy. When the comedy from vaudeville finally had its eyes back again (after years of being in the dark with radio) and was able to take its experience to mint legends for the ages. Television turned night club raconteurs into instant celebrities, thanks to the likes of Jack Paar, Ed Sullivan and soon – the king of them all – Johnny Carson. But except for Lucille Ball, how many women from this era have seen their strengths and struggles dramatized, their stories told? For all the plays, films and TV based on Neil Simon, Mel Brooks or Carl Reiner’s fond memories of the 1950’s classic sketch show Your Show of Shows (and later Caesar’s Hour), sporting a writing staff that included most of the comedy legends for the latter part of 20th century (Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin, etc.), where are the stories solely about Lucille Kallen or Selma Diamond? Where are the lavish odes to Madelyn Pugg, who wrote most of I Love Lucy’s classic episodes and who was given the moniker of “Girl Writer” because of the oddity of such a thing at the time?  Because for every Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Alan King, Bob Newhart and Richard Pryor, there was a Joan Rivers, a Moms Mabley and an Elaine May. Today, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are household names, but the female narrative of comedy they came from seems mostly forgotten or glossed over. That was until Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino gave us the new Amazon pilot The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Written and directed by Sherman-Palladino, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel tells the story of Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan), whom we first meet at her wedding reception, doing stand-up (unbeknownst to herself) and regaling her family and friends with the cleaned up version of her 1950’s teen life at Bryn Mawr College. Four years later, Midge has two kids and the seemingly perfect New York Upper-West Side Jewish life of 1958, and one would assume to find her spending her nights in Greenwich Village trying her hand at stand-up comedy. However, this is 1958 after all, and Midge is just a “housewife” making brisket, worried about keeping her figure and beauty for her husband – all while having time to prepare the perfect Yom Kippur break -fast for the Rabbi and for her family. It’s only when a family crisis (which I won’t give away) sends Midge’s “happy life” into upheaval that she finally discovers that she is the talented stand-up in the family, not her wannabe husband. A talent that, based on the synopsis, will take Midge all the way to Johnny Carson’s couch – the pinnacle and seminal moment for stand-ups of her generations.

Within the short pilot, Sherman-Palladino is able to establish Midge as a smart, confident and funny female who knows what she wants, even if it took her 26 years to know that she, as a woman, could achieve it. Midge belongs in the company of other Sherman-Palladino heroines: a witty, fast-talking brunette you want to root for. What the pilot also does well is establish the obstacles Midge will be up against in her upward rise to fame. The fact that Midge didn’t even expect herself to go into comedy, that it was her husband’s job, is a red flag on its own; but what the pilot does best for a layman of this era is to establish this pre-feminist environment Midge will have to push against to succeed. Midge, for example, keeps a journal of all of her measurements, something she has done since she was a child, and even goes so far as to hide her night beauty regiments from her husband to make him believe she wakes up with perfect hair and make-up – behavior that appears to have been passed down from her own mother who in the pilot worries her baby granddaughter has too big of a head and bemuses that her daughter is officially done wearing sleeveless dresses. Even Midge’s own father blames her for her husband’s failings – something that even shocks Midge. Sherman-Palladino’s music choices, as with Gilmore Girls, do a wonderful job to establish mood, tone, and style of the time period. Paired with the vibrant colors and sets of 1958 New York City, it all makes the audience feel like they’ve stepped back in time.  What you ultimately get with Mrs. Maisel is the fast, witty dialogue of Gilmore Girls mixed with the epic scope and social commentary of Mad Men, and a comedy history lesson to boot.

Along the way Midge meets Gilmore Girls alum Alex Borstein who plays a hardened (West) Village bartender Susie at the comedy club “The Gaslight Cafe “ – which appears to be a fictitious stand-in for “The Bitter End”. Susie sees the rare comic talent in Midge, comparing her to Mort Sahl (an icon in his day). Finally at one point Susie tells an unsure Midge, “I don’t mind being alone. I just do not want to be insignificant. Do you? Don’t you want to do something no one else can do? Be remembered  as something other than a wife… a housewife…” – a universal question women, hell, humans ask themselves. It resonates with Midge as it did me and it pushes Midge to take the first steps to go after her own dreams with as much gusto as she put into making a brisket or we can only imagine she put into getting back in her Rabbi’s good graces. It’s fitting that what will one day became one of most important day in Midge’s life takes place on Yom Kippur. It is a day of atonement of sins, yes, but is also a day of starting over. Of re-birth. Of having your sins forgiven and wiping the slate. (In fact, she literally ends the day wearing wearing someone else’s shoes)

Also making an appearance are The Kingston Trio and, in a more substantial role, Lenny Bruce himself (played wonderfully by Luke Kirby), establishing that there are rules to this world (which includes being arrested for indecency) and that being innovative means sometimes you have to break these rules.  Every actor in the pilot is a knockout, led by the adorably charming Rachel Brosnahan as Midge, and (as Sherman-Palladino always does) casting stalwart actors such as Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle as Midge’s parents.

For me, what really struck home this piece in my heart was not just that it was about a woman who will pioneer comedy, but that this is the story of a Jewish woman in comedy. See, a short time ago I had a revelation. And hear me out, here. It may sound crazy… but… as a Jewish woman I feel unrepresented within the comic Jewish narrative. No seriously I do. Think about it… 99.9% of what we know as the traditional comic Jewish persona is male driven. And I don’t just mean this in the sense that this narrative is mostly populated by men. What I talking about is the ideas or tropes that are usually identified as the classic heritage of Jewish comedy, or voice, comes from the point of view of a strictly male narrative. The style, the attributes, what consolidates a comic Jewish stereotype – from Alan King to Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld. And yes, this is a history that stems all the way from the ethnic comedy of vaudeville to the dining rooms of the Catskills “Borscht Belt,” so of course it comes from a male dominated society.  But for me it was a persona I had adopted as my own, that I thought I was a part of. It wasn’t until I saw more of myself in the works of Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson (Broad City) and of Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh-McKenna (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) writing actual Jewish women that I started to notice it more: I wasn’t represented. Where I had previously thought I saw myself in the worlds of Allen and Seinfeld, and even Aaron Sorkin to a degree, I only had to take a step back to see that alongside their “Jewish avatars” were mostly goyisha women.  And that when any token Jewish women actually appeared, they were nags or annoying stereotypes with funny voices for laughs.  And yes, to a non-New Yorker, Midge has a funny voice, but what her voice is in so many ways authentic. Here is a familiar, confident, Jewish woman I recognize. And this is a good thing not just for seeing myself represented in the narrative, but also for what it does to the public at large. To show that we aren’t just jokes and nagging mothers in a punch-line. Or bad dates their mother sets them up with. We are also part of this heritage of comedy. And I think there is no better person than Amy Sherman-Palladino (whose own father was a comedian during this era) to use her own Jewish voice to tell us all about Mrs. Maisel and how she made it to the top of comedy. So I recommend you watch this pilot and vote for it to be picked up for series (or else it won’t, that’s how Amazon works) And if the male in your life or the ones reading this still aren’t sold on  “Mad Men/ PunchLine for chicks” … just tell ‘em there are also tits in it. 😉

 

Killy Dwyer in “Not Show Business”

Posted in Art Stars, Contemporary Variety, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre with tags , , , , , on March 5, 2017 by travsd

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I was so grateful Kelly “Killy” Dwyer flushed me out of my hiding place yesterday to come see the last performance of her work Not Show Business in the Frigid Festival at Under St. Marks. We’re longtime fans of Killy’s, not just as an artist but as a person; we love her so much we asked her to officiate at our wedding.  Little did we know that she was going through tough times then, which I only make bold to mention because she talks about it openly in her work.

What do we admire about her work? Well for one thing, she can’t be pigeon-holed. She’s a singer, comedienne, storyteller, musician, autobiographical performance artist. The word “collage” occurred to me looking at the stage yesterday, a piece built of cut-up fragments. In addition to the performance aspects, she was working with found objects (real physical items from her childhood) in this show, as well as video (home movies).

She is extremely bold and brave. I know this because I have been watching her for a long time and I catch quick glimpses of what’s behind the mask. She does a high wire act. Once you’re on the wire, there’s only one way to do it and that’s with the confidence that you can. But there’s that second before you step off. She doesn’t hide that second from anybody before she climbs up, but it’s there. She’s whistlin’ in the graveyard. She mines a lot of humor from mock insincerity in the show biz tradition (after she finished a song yesterday, she said, “Let’s hear it for that, huh?”) and that’s endearing. At the same time, she bares all, about her mistakes, about her foibles, and in particular (in this show) about struggles with mental illness. She switched up her meds six months ago because she was afraid she was losing her memory, and this show is all about memory. Hence the giant baby-jammies, and the box of keepsakes full of old photo albums and yearbooks and the projected home movies on stage.

Now, I have seen shows just like what I just have described that have been insufferable, and you have too. What sets Killy apart, aside from honesty that’s not bullshit, is a high level of craft that allows her to turn the mess of her life into art. She is a great legit singer in a very old school way (like, really, I don’t know, Doris Day or something) and that impression is reinforced by the fact that her physical raw material looks like the Ohio mom she probably would have been if there wasn’t an exploding genius inside fucking up her brain. (I know I’m not alone in that impression because she gets cast as moms all the time in TV commercials.) But in reality she is a feral free spirit, and that comes out in her songwriting and arranging which is modern and technological and would not be out of place at a party (unless you made a point of listening to the dark and funny lyrics). In the show I saw she sang a song about her high school romance with Jack Daniels (the kind that comes in a bottle), an abusive romance which resulted in her breaking her nose at her 18th birthday party. She blended the song and the story perfectly into a seamless performance although it was presumably performed spur of the moment as the result of an audience member choosing it by spinning a “Wheel of Destiny”.

Killy’s work is inspirational to me and it was heartening to see it at Under St. Marks, a space I have been coming back to for almost 20 years now, a place that has hung on to its mission of presenting such work when the whole city seems to be becoming a brothel of high-priced sell-outs. This is pure work. It’s kind of the only work that matters. Made me want to jump on up there and try to do a show just like it, and that’s the highest kind of praise I got.

BTW, Killy’s been doing a terrific prime-time radio show on Radio Free Brooklyn, Friday nights at 8pm. You should check it out!

5 “Lost Films” I Can Live Without Seeing

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , on February 26, 2017 by travsd

Well, this is more of a headline that a blogpost, I’m afraid. It seemed like a nice heretical stunt until I tried to draw up the list. I started with ten, and then realized I’d better make it five, and then had a hard time filling the five. Like you, no doubt, I rate any loss a tragedy and I have a lot of curiosity. There is a long list of silent films and early talkies and director’s cuts that I am extremely bummed about. These are just a few that I don’t lose any sleep over.

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Greed  director’s cut (1924)

Eric Von Stroheim’s original cut of his masterpiece was reportedly a gazillion hours long: eight? Then six? Then five? Then three? Producers kept asking for shorter versions until it was down to 2 hours, 2o minutes. And then unfortunately a janitor destroyed the cut footage. There’s a “restored” version that employs stills that’s about four hours. Some of the 12 people who saw the complete version hailed it as the greatest movie ever made. But the edited one remains near the top of the list anyway. Given that A) I’ve seen the general release edit and think it is a great masterpiece, and B) the average silent feature is about ONE hour long, I’m really content to imagine what the eight hours consisted of without having to sit through them. Eight hours is a long-ass silent movie.

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The Seagull or A Woman of the Sea (1926)

The only reason Edna Purviance was ever in films was that Chaplin’s scouts had spotted her in a cafe and he decided to try her out. Purviance was a secretary with no ambitions to become an actress. Still, from 1915 through 1923 she was Chaplin’s leading lady, and a memorable and important part of his classic pictures. After A Woman of Paris (1923), Chaplin’s ardor cooled. Purviance had long since ceased to be his paramour offscreen, and in his view she had gotten to be too mature for what he required in a leading lady onscreen. To ease her transition to Life After Chaplin, he commissioned Josef Von Sternberg to direct her in this feature, sometimes called The Seagull, or Seagulls or A Woman of the Sea. When Chaplin saw the rushes, her performance was apparently so embarrassing that he destroyed all of the footage. It must be noted that Chaplin directed by telling the actor every move to make, which often enabled him to work with neophytes, children or amateurs. Without Chaplin’s painstaking directorial style as a guide, Purviance was probably fairly lost. Yet she was charming in Chaplin’s movies. I have no morbid desire to see her limitations exposed.

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London After Midnight (1927)

Due to Lon Chaney’s iconic make-up this Tod Browning horror film used to rate high on my list of wanna-see lost films, and it remains there for many people. But I’ve now seen a reconstructed version made up of production stills, and was disappointed to learn that it has the exact same plot as the director’s later Mark of the Vampire (1935). It’s really a silly plot. But many of Browning’s films have extravagant, implausible stories. So, I’m not glad precisely that I can’t see the complete London After Midnight. I’m just kind of OK with it!

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The Magnificent Ambersons director’s cut (1942)

RKO messed with Orson Welles’ planned edit of his second feature when he was down in South America shooting It’s All True. Not only did the studio switch scenes around and cut it differently, but they tacked on a silly ending which Welles’ didn’t even shoot. But I am completely okay with that. I love the existing version of the film. Maybe Welles’ version would have been better, but maybe not. He did seem to have obscurantist, baroque instincts when it came to editing, which are what they are. It makes it rewarding to watch his films many times, as many of us love to do. But the first viewing of nearly all of his films tend to be confusing, and producers and audiences can be forgiven for not warming up to that. I’m totally okay with the existing version of Ambersons. It is by no means a given that Welles’ version would have been objectively “better”.

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Him (1974)

A gay pornographic film about Jesus. Yeah, no, I don’t ever need to see this.

Why SNL of Late is NOT All That

Posted in Comedy, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Television, TV variety with tags , , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd
"I'll get back to you later", indeed

“I’ll get back to you later”, indeed

Sometimes the difference between comedy and satire can seem slight, but when the latter is properly done, you can drive a truck through the gulf. Satire is comedy made by an angry moralist. The greatest of satirists, Jonathan Swift, was an Anglican clergyman. You see something that is wrong, you take aim, you shoot at it, hopefully you hit it, but you MUST DRAW BLOOD.

So I’m worried about SNL. It succeeds as I would hope sometimes, but only sometimes, and what’s worse, more often, its aims seem ambiguous. They make the administration figures of fun, which is fine, but too often I feel the fun is too much fun, or their fun is beside the point. The danger in doing that is in normalizing these monstrous figures. The mere presence of Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer was more than enough last week — it was a hilarious stunt, audacious and shocking, and hit those insecure pigs right where they live by having it rubbed in their face by a woman. But that was last week. Now we’re used to her — she’s cute and lovable, even when she’s angry, she can’t help herself. So there must be something else, something pointed. It can’t be about gum-chewing or whatever. That’s a mere wacky foible and the message it sends is that Spicer is like any other SNL targeted pol, Jimmy Carter, for example. For the most part I felt there was a real danger of Spicer being the HERO of that sketch, that it’s now becoming exciting and lovable to watch him tear it up. The only part of that sketch that I felt had any real impact was the end…it felt quite powerful when he was herding the reporters around the room like a sheepdog. That is a comic, satirical image with a point: funny but also scary. I had the same criticism about the Kellyanne Conway sketch, it was glamorizing, not a take-down. The sketches with Baldwin as Trump are usually much more on point, although there is a danger there as well, about it being about funny faces or something.

Lorne Michaels is mercenary. He’ll triangulate if he can. If he thinks he can get Trump viewers as well as anti-Trump viewers by steering some toothless middle ground he will do it. But you can’t just do it to do it, you must DRAW BLOOD. If you do not, as when Kate McKinnon appeared for a brief second as Jeff Sessions, it becomes business as usual. Sessions becomes that hilarious guy we laugh at on Saturday nights who deprives blacks of voting rights. It’s worse than nothing not to go for the jugular vein in political satire. It can never be a case of “Hey, isn’t what’s going on in America right now kinda offbeat and FUNNY?” This is a life or death situation. The only legitimate goal is to END THIS ADMINISTRATION. There is no “wacky” here. Some Mexican mom just got yanked from her kids last night, maybe next door to your house. I’m obviously not saying the sketches shouldn’t be funny, but they must be on point, and they must reduce the target to ashes or we are doing the administration’s work for them. 

Carrie Welton: A Novel

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS with tags , , , , on February 11, 2017 by travsd

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It may be beyond the capacity of younger people to imagine, but there was a time within living memory when New England’s smaller cities (towns like Worcester, Providence, Hartford, Waterbury and Bridgeport) were nationally renowned and sources of regional pride. Founded in the early colonial period, they boomed with the coming of the industrial revolution in the 19th century and flourished until the mid-2oth. Waterbury, for example was the “Brass Capital of America” and for a time the products of the Waterbury Watch Company were considered the finest in the world.

We mention Waterbury in particular because it’s the setting of Charles Monagan’s novel Carrie WeltonThe title intrigued me, with its echoes of Sister Carrie and Daisy Miller and the like, as did the cover image, which turns out to be based on an actual portrait of the real-life Caroline Welton by Abraham Archibald Anderson at the Mattatuck Museum.  Welton (1842-1884) was one of Waterbury’s most prominent citizens during the city’s heyday. Intriguing monuments to her still exist there, such as the family mansion Rose Hill, and a fountain in the town green featuring a statue of Welton’s prized black stallion “Knight”, paid for with funds from her will which stipulated they be used for just that purpose. The lore about the statue in Waterbury must be prodigious, for it is impossible to look at the statue without wondering, “Why would someone erect a statue to a horse that had kicked their father to death?”. For Knight had done just that. Carrie must have hated her father very much — but why? It’s the sort of thing that might inspire speculative fiction.

And that is what Monagan gives us, an imaginative filling-in of those mysterious gaps that nag and vex (but give us so much pleasure). It is known that Welton was a painter and moved in artistic circles (she studied with the Hudson River school painters William and James MacDouglas Hart, and knew their sister Julie Hart Beers (Kempson). It is known that she was a major early supporter of the ASPCA, giving them around $250,000 over the course of her life, which would amount to roughly $7 million in today’s money. And it is known that she died in a blizzard while climbing Long’s Peak in the Rocky Mountains — a highly unusual death for a woman in 1884, it must be noted. Particularly a society woman. Hers was also the first recorded death on that mountain; she was one of its earliest climbers.

But it is the private life that intrigues us and the meat of Monagan’s novel gives us well-researched and vividly-rendered guesses as to its nature. The story is told from the perspective of Welton’s neighbor, the real-life Frederick Kingsbury (1823-1910). Living across the street from the Weltons, the Kingsburys have a front row seat at the drama; it is sort of like Bewitched told from the point of view of the Kravitzes. It’s just close enough to give us a better idea than anyone else what is going on behind the walls of that house…but just far away enough not to have the whole story, which keeps us on the hook for the duration. The book is organized in three sections; the first (and best, I think) tells of the tumultuous teenage years. The second imagines her time in New York and Boston, where to my great delight she hangs out at Pfaff’s and encounters the likes of Whitman and Ada Clare (this gave me great delight because these people and places also played a role in my play Horse Play; there must be something in the zeitgeist).  Carrie witnesses the Civil War draft riots and has adventures in Five Points and even gets poisoned in an opium den! And the third part concerns her return to Waterbury, the death of her father, and her mysterious behavior afterwards.

I found it an enormously pleasurable read. Stylistically it is evocative of American realists like Howells, Crane, Wharton, James, Tarkington, and Dreiser. I thought of them all at one point or another while reading this book. Interestingly, though, most of the tale is laid in the 1850s and 60s, when the predominating literary style was Romanticism. The transference is welcome though; the heavier, more ponderous metaphysical style of the ’50s would be a very different, far less welcome book. Necessarily, Monagan’s style is more modern that even the period realists I mentioned, accomplishing in 300 pages what might have taken James twice as long to do. The strategy has its bonuses. While greater restraint, and more cultural reticence toward “sharing” and “getting things out in the open” in the manner of James might feel more period appropriate, the contemporary reader is grateful for the faster ride. And yet, while the writing is lean, there’s a lot there. I confess I tried to skim it, as one often does when reviewing books, but I found I couldn’t, and for two reasons. The first is that his writing is so spare and economical that you simply miss vital points if you try to plow through, and you become quickly disoriented. The second is that I was enjoying it too much.

Above all, the book strikes me as a loving valentine to to the author’s native city. And nostalgia for that time we never got to know, that era of seemingly unbounded growth, when essentially the whole country was getting in on the ground floor of Something Big. Frederick Kingsbury founded Waterbury’s first bank! As in, before him, there was NO bank! If you could scrape together the capital and had some ideas, it was possible to FOUND something, to make an empire of brass. As opposed to the American years of our lifetimes, which have been characterized by decay and decline and the boarding of storefront windows. I often think: sometimes the past can be as pleasant a fantasy as science fiction. But at the same time, Monagan reminds us, beneath the gilt and finery, there was also unhappiness. Therein likes the difference between a Realist and a Romantic.

The book is available here.

Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Jews/ Show Biz, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2017 by travsd

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It undoubtedly speaks to my present state of mind that I wasn’t crazy about Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled The Fuhrer. Someone recommended it to me online just knowing I’d love it, and the title certainly sounds like the kind of thing I’d really go for, for a multiplicity of reasons. But the title mis-sells it. I was expecting and hoping for a real-life story perhaps mixing elements of To Be or Not to Be, I am a Camera, and Schindler’s List, featuring real-life derring-do and heroism by a cabaret performer deep in the heart of the Third Reich…

Instead, the book’s subject turns out to be an American flim-flam artist, vaudeville manager and impresario from Troy, New York named Freeman Bernstein. His “hustle” of Hitler consisted of selling him a few tons of scrap metal under the premise that it was a shipment of nickel, much in demand as Germany was preparing for war. Even as a swindle this strikes me as rather contemptible, lacking whimsy or creativity, just kind of a bottom-feeding theft. I’m glad it happened to Nazis, but if it happened to anyone else I’d say, “Clap that dude in irons and bring him bad food.” Further, the book, in the tradition of its subject, keeps you on the hook for over 300 pages before finally delivering its underwhelming story. It is preceded by pages of lore about the guy’s show biz career running amusement parks and small time vaudeville houses, and crossing paths with the occasional person of note, such as Mae West, to whom he once tried to sell some fake jewels. (It’s not so easy to sell fake diamonds to Diamond Lil).

The book is a labor of love by Bernstein’s great-nephew Walter Shapiro and has the flavor of family anecdote, a long, winding bar-room story at long last set down on paper. I’m going to hang on to it for awhile and perhaps mine it later for vaudeville lore. But at the moment I am much less interested in vaudevillians per se than in VAUDEVILLIANS WHO TOPPLE NAZIS, know’m sayin’?

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