Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Past Lives and Old Questions

Mary Lois Timbes, Merrell Williams Jr., The Glass Menagerie
I was scanning my online NY Times today when I came upon an obituary that hit my heart. Surprised, yes, in that it was of a man I'd known as a youth, with all the promise and energy that entails, a man who had lived a life quite different from the one we who knew him in those days would have dreamed.

Merrell Williams, Jr., of Jackson, MS, was the only one of our group at the Mississippi Southern Summer Theater Program whom I would have bet on as having what it takes to become a movie star. He was the most gifted among us, a natural in the James Dean mode, with a flair for comedy as well as easy access to his passionate nature, along with a lot of charm and ambition--surely as close to a guarantee of success on stage and screen as could be found. After the summer program, he enrolled at Baylor University, which was said to have one of the best theatre departments in the country. We knew his name was Merrell but he was known as Butch in those days.

A few years later I was living in New York and saw his picture in the Times in a coffeehouse production--all the rage in the early 1960s. I just assumed I'd soon see him somewhere onstage or on a big screen. I didn't hear of him again, however, until the late 1980s when he was mentioned on 60 Minutes as a whistleblower in the tobacco industry. I went to the movie The Insider, expecting to see something about him, but the movie was about Jeffrey Wigand, and played by Russell Crowe, who looked a little like Butch and also a little like Wigand. Apparently his life was spent not pounding the pavement looking for acting jobs, but instead riffling through files and copying documents to indict the tobacco industry, behind the scenes.
Merrill Williams Jr. in 1994

In a play early on, one write-up says, he portrayed a chain smoking ad executive, and found himself addicted to cigarettes by the end of it. His parents had both been heavy smokers and his father died young as a result. Butch was a driven sort of guy, and he apparently became obsessed with outing the corporations who profited from the sale of tobacco products, and did his part in exposing much of the corruption in the industry.

He died of a heart attack at his home in Ocean Springs, MS, known as a waterside resort, not unlike Fairhope AL, where I spent my childhood and went for another 20 years before moving back to the Northeast.

Our paths didn't cross again, but he was unforgettable. In many ways I'm proud of what he did do with his time on earth, and yet I get the feeling from what I read about him that he died an embittered man. Part of me wishes he had become a movie star.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Witnessed By the World: A Review

Max Gordon Moore and Charlotte Maier discuss writing a film, while television reprises the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald

Witnessed By the World, the drama previewing in Theatre B in Manhattan’s 59 East 59th Street complex, opens the world of Kennedy assassination theories adding another one to the mix—what did Jack Ruby have in mind when he took out a gun and shot alleged Kennedy shooter Lee Harvey Oswald?

For those of us of a certain age, this was a world event that colored our lifetime, as, with television news turned on as a somber white noise in the days following the brutal murder, we all were witnesses to the event. It was said to be the moment television came of age, but I can’t agree with that since presenting history live for the first time does not seem to have made the medium any more mature in the years that followed. However, that was a moment in which television did its job—immediate, indisputable, horrifying—it brought the complexity of the murderous act into our living rooms. We saw it happen, the world saw it happen, and fifty years later we are still not in complete comprehension of what we did see.

The public by now has largely accepted the Warren Commission’s report, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and Jack Ruby acted alone. Two lone rangers playing God, one for his own reasons wanting to eliminate the president of the United States, and the other, for no reason anyone has ever really determined, having the desire and opportunity to eliminate the man who did the deed. Playwrights Ronnie Cohen and Jane Beale bring us another possibility in Witnessed by the World, the possibility that both men were employed by the mob to do the jobs they did.

The play is well crafted, introducing an investigative reporter and a young movie screenwriter who are working together to produce a script about Jack Ruby. The reporter, Joan Ross, has had her eye on Ruby for years and feels his story has never been told and should be. The screenwriter does not want to make his mob opus another assassination movie, and insists that the story stops when Ruby makes a trip to Havana. A cast of earnest professionals present the story very persuasively. I would like to have seen the reporter a bit more single-minded in her task, more an aggressive reporter than a nice person. Charlotte Maier was excellent in the role as it was written, but I felt, particularly in the first interview with Ruby's sister (very sympathetically portrayed by Lois Markle), the audience should be aware that Maier, as Joan Ross, is mostly manipulating the older lady to talk more than she wants to. The night I saw it her "befriending" didn't have that edge of "pumping for information" that the scene required. Both actresses are first-rate, and I couldn't tell if it might have been made clearer by rewriting or by direction--or both. Max Gordon Moore (pictured above, and yes, he does look a bit like Woody Allen) does a creditable job of playing the somewhat naive screenwriter.

In a telling moment early in the play, when the reporter is pitching the story, she says, “If you’re looking for an interesting mob figure, I’ve been doing a lot of research on one who has a real story—Jack Ruby!" The movie writer says, “Who?” 

The scene demonstrates the reality that there's been a lot of water under that bridge since the assassination fifty years ago--that there are adults today who don't even know the names of the major players. Maybe the discussions have slacked off, but for years many were never convinced that it was possible that the events came together by accident--two unknown, unconnected, trigger-happy guys could not have unknowingly created the chaos that the waning years of the 20th century became after their actions. I won't spoil the show for you by revealing the authors' theory and its outcome in Witnessed by the World. I'm not totally convinced they are right, but I agree with them that it is time to reopen and reinvestigate the information we do have. I'm told Lynn Scherr will lead a panel discussion after the show on November 22, and there will likely be a number of different conspiracy theories brought to light that evening.

Witnessed by the World will be an intriguing contribution to the discussion. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

A Theatrical Adventure

For the review of Witnessed by the World, click here.

When I first met Ronnie Cohen, she was a housewife and mommy. It was the early 1980s and her husband, like mine, had gotten a great gig in the international business world, and we all were posted to Geneva. A rising star in the world of advertising, she was now in the business of raising a two-year-old, and in Switzerland to boot.

She contacted me in order to learn if I had a place for her in the theatre group I had started. As a youngster she loved nothing more than going to plays in New York, and she had seen the first two offerings of The Little Theater of Geneva and was looking for something to do.

Ronnie was one of the luckiest finds in all my time in Geneva. She was beautiful, talented, and fun to work with.
At first I had to show her the ropes, but I was doing that with all the expat Americans I could round up to participate. I asked everybody I met if they wanted to get involved--the conversation at a cocktail party might go something like this, "Have you ever been in a play before?" "I played the Christmas tree in the first grade." "Sounds good--we could use a man of your talent and experience!" Because the Americans were looking for things to do, and our crowd were clearly having fun, The Little Theater of Geneva, an American-style community theatre--grew like mad in just a few years. I and many others pulled four plays together, building sets, finding costumes, teaching acting classes, and a number of people who had known nothing about the theatre were now up to their necks in it.

After a couple of years graduating from gopher, troubleshooter, backstage hand, and stage manager, Ronnie asked if she could direct a show. She wanted to do Death Trap. My management style is that basically if I'm sure you know what you're doing, I let you do what you want. She asked me to be her stage manager, I agreed, and she was launched. The next season she took a role in Chapter Two, and she stayed behind the scenes after that until she and her family were transferred back to the States.
Needless to say it was a big loss for the theatre, and for me personally, but we kept in touch, even after I got back to the U.S. When I decided after 20 years in Alabama to return to the New York area, I looked her up. She was now in a high-powered advertising job and writing plays with a collaborator as a sideline. I came into the city to see a couple of her productions off-Broadway.

Tomorrow night, November 9, I'll be doing it again, with a big one. Ronnie and Jane Beale
have written Witnessed by the World, a play about Jack Ruby, the man who shot Lee Harvey Oswald.

It's previewing at the 59 East 59th Street Theater, and may have a much bigger opening somewhere else very soon. I'll be there with bells on, sequins anyway, bursting with pride and delight at my young friend's success and perseverance. I'm the one behind the scenes now--way behind--but I couldn't be happier for her. I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Buster Keaton Has His Day

The face speaks volumes. Never mind that he has long been referred to as a deadpan comic, Buster Keaton learned early on that if he was seen to smile on film, it would ruin everything. He came to play a certain character, a sincere guy trying to prove himself against impossible odds, exhibiting his wondrous skills as an acrobat and visual comedian, without changing facial expression. Things happen to this feckless guy, and he reacts without contorting his face even with a smile. His eyes reflect his emotions and his limber body travels through the story taking the audience with him.

Rosendale Theatre Collective's Sunday Silents series will feature Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr., in a showing this afternoon at 2. It's one of his best, complete with visual effects that are unique to Keaton and have gone down in film history as major accomplishments. If you haven't been exposed to the art of Keaton or if you have little kids in your family who may not know the sheer joy of the silent film, I urge you to attend en masse. You'll laugh, you may even shed a tear for a lost art, and you'll leave the theater a Buster Keaton fan. So will the young people you choose to bring.

Beth Wilson, professor of film at SUNY New Paltz, will be on hand to answer questions and discuss the film at the end of the show. Marta Waterman, local keyboardist, will accompany the movie with a special score.

There will be popcorn, laughter, and you are invited to participate! This is what the Rosendale Theatre Collective is all about.