Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Life in the Third Act

Scott Fitzgerald said, “There are no second acts in American life.” I am not the first to observe how wrong he was.

In his own life, as he saw it, probably, Act One began when he was in his mid-20’s and had sold This Side of Paradise, his first novel.
He never wrote or spoke of his childhood, and, although he was, in fact, a child at some point; his life began at Princeton with his relationship with Genevra King and then the fabulous, fraught Zelda. His reason for pessimism after his great early success may have been that, like so many celebrities before and after him, he reached for fame and got it too soon. He didn’t have the equipment to handle it. (There is also the matter of his alcohol addiction and his wife’s schizophrenia. I cannot know for certain, but suspect that at the heart of his life’s tragedy was the 20th Century’s confusion of values – an individual’s pursuit of material possessions and fame at the expense of his nobler motivation to produce art.)

But let’s think of life, any life, as broken into three acts. Take me, for instance, since this is my blog and I can do what I want with it.

My Act One was decidedly Childhood. Growing up in Fairhope, Alabama, a utopian colony with one of the world's first Progressive schools, was unforgettable--growth-producing, and a pathway to a good second act. I was made alert to its potential through the advantage of an education in the  aforementioned school,  the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education, where kids made things happen and things happened to kids. We were not talked at or talked down to, we were questioned, we were allowed (yea, encouraged) to ask questions, and at the end of the 12 years in school we knew who we were. We just couldn’t wait for more stuff to happen. (For more on this, read The Fair Hope of Heaven, available online through amazon.com and Page & Palette, a local bookstore in Fairhope.)

Act One ended poignantly with a romance; a promise of things to come. I would no longer be a child. I had the tools to grow into a productive adult. I just didn’t know it.

Act Two was Romance and Travel, with a smattering of comedy, melodrama, and adventures in the arts, particularly the theatre. Act Two abounds with stories – short stories, novels, character sketches, changes of locale, marriage(s), the raising of a child, divorces, deaths -- an infinity of challenge and growth. This would have been Scott Fitzgerald’s Act One, but, because I had such a rich childhood, all this stuff was Act Two for me. There are indeed second acts in American life.

Act Three is just at the beginning now; a chance to assess and apply what I’ve learned while at the same time learning more. A chance to work at perfecting the instrument. An awareness that it is now or never, so it’s gonna be now. Well, knowing the instrument doesn’t mean the same circumstances won’t recur, or necessarily that I’ll handle them differently. It just means I know they’re coming.

There, I’ve done it again, glossed over things as if life were just a somewhat bumpy ride down an unpaved road. In Act Three I’m learning to write it well, clarifying and not letting myself off the hook so easily. Perhaps I’ll get involved in theatre again, and I’ll work at it. Perhaps there is another book or two in me, yet to be written. Maybe even another house. The two little boys who are my grandsons are young men, ready to take on the world, and if they’re lucky their lives will have three acts as well. Even if they become cynics, they still will not say that there are no second acts in American life. I hope that, like me, they will attempt to deal with the whole show with some humor, intelligence, and good will.

An earlier version of this blog post appeared when I was still living in Fairhope, on my "Finding Fair Hope" blog, and a reader corrected me about my interpretation of Scott Fitzgerald's statement. She said he didn't mean Americans didn't reinvent themselves, but that their lives were filled instead with "first" acts. I didn't mean to reinvent myself either, but I'm not sure I agree that was what Fitzgerald meant. "How's your second act?" was a common taunt among writers of the 1920s and 30s, as the second act was the most difficult to craft--the place in a play where conflict came into focus, setting up a need for the inevitable resolution in Act Three.

All my acts have been a bit helter-skelter, compared to the well-made plays of years past, and now that I'm in the last act, I have a sense that it's all working out.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Lovelier The Second Time Around

Sometimes a play just hits its audience right where it should, no matter how young or old it is, no matter how dated the theme, and no matter many times we've heard the jokes before. This is the case with the Coach House Players' production of The Second Time Around, a comedy by Henry Denker that first ran on Broadway in 1977.

The story concerns an older couple who fall in love and decide to live together without benefit of marriage over their families' objections. A problem long ago solved, right? I went into the theater on the second night of the show wondering if it would be possible to sustain dramatic tension over the situation for anything like two hours.

Thanks to a motley assortment of neurotic and endearing characters, it worked. The audience smiled, laughed, guffawed and practically howled and some of the one-liners, and the story wound up nicely in the hands of the two leads, who had held our interest the whole time. Rich Wronkoski as Samuel and Barbara Surowitz as Laura won us over early and kept us wondering how they had spawned such a brood of misfits. With perfect timing and ease onstage, they both carried off the difficulties of making such an unlikely story plausible today, even if the play is set in the distant past. The chemistry and warmth between them made us care and hope the two would pull off the old-fashioned happily-ever-after bit. They seemed like a couple--and one you'd want to know.

Their offspring, the dyspeptic Mike (or Mickey, as his mother keeps calling him), and Cynthia, played by Rob Rowe and Bernadette Pikul, provide tension and comedy at the same time. Mike's nervous stomach is a source of laughs and Cynthia's controlling insistence that her mother's memory is somehow being desecrated provide the crux of conflict in what should be a natural turn of events. Clever dialogue and solid performances make the audience accept the crisis and care about the reactions of these cartoonish people. Complicating the scene are their spouses, Mike's wife Eleanor (played with likable detestibility by Rachel Davis) and Cynthia's psychiatrist husband Arthur, played by Adam Alberts as a man in serious need of therapy as he tries to heal everybody he meets. Samuel's grandson and his girlfriend--Tom Roberts and Jocelyn Witkowski--provide comic points and Roberts has the best line in the play, summing up the conflict neatly toward the evening's end.

The play is well directed by John Thayer, with the performances evenly paced and balanced. A minor carp--I could have done with more outlandish 1970s costumes and hairdos in order to reinforce the time period. The Jimmy Carter joke didn't go over, and with the ocean of time between this play's first production and this one, it's understandable why. If Ms. Davis' character had been aping Carter's toothy grin all along it might have worked--otherwise I think the line could have been cut. 

Without resorting to a spoiler, I will say that the last moments of the play are warm and wonderful (Note: anytime a little Frank Sinatra comes on, this critic turns to butter), and at the performance I attended an audible "Aww..." emanated from the audience.

The Second Time Around will be performed for its final time at the theater at 12 Augusta Street, Kingston, this afternoon at 2.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Movie Critics

I took them to the movies last night. The Rosendale capped off its four-day festival of films about music with a third presentation of A Hard Day's Night, and a goodly crowd was there. There were children, the elderly, and then there were my grandsons, age 16 and 19.

I would say almost all of us had seen the film before, but not for fifty years. This was their first viewing of the Beatles as young bundles of energy and happy rebellion, running hither and yon to escape the throngs of screaming females. They know of Ringo and Paul, of course, but I don't think they knew about John and George. And the two they knew, they knew as old guys.

The first time I saw the film was at the height of Beatlemania--girls in the audience didn't merely swoon, as girls had done 20 years before for Frank Sinatra. These girls were younger--10 to 16, I'd say, and the hysteria that swept over them at the sight of their fantasy men in Teddy Boy suits was extreme--they screamed, they wept copious, uncontrollable tears, they intoned the names of their imagined beloved over and over, as if to envelope the object of their pubescent lust in an orgiastic embrace. I was just over the age to be so passionate about an iconic creation, but I enjoyed observing the phenomenon. And I loved the music.

A Hard Day's Night was a romp, basically an infomercial about the new musical group. By the end of the movie we'd heard every one of the songs that would be the first of their world-wide hits. There is an unbridled joy in the movie, a surreal wackiness that warms the heart and makes us want to know what will happen next.

Unfortunately what did happen next to the lads from Liverpool wasn't all that good. The world watched as they matured from antic post-adolescents to blissed-out stoners--I'll never forget that debut of the song "Hey Jude" on Ed Sullivan, with the Beatles now swaying, dazedly, chanting the anthem that was to usher in yet another phase of their development right before our eyes. Seeing A Hard Day's Night again with all the faces fresh, the hair tousled and shampooed, the exuberance of young men on top of the world, at the top of their game--touched our hearts. We had all been through so very much together.

I went hoping that the sheer power of that mood would infuse my own offspring, that they would say, "Wow--I wish we had guys like that now!" but that didn't happen. They love music, and they did enjoy the film as a time capsule from a distant era. But they actually said they got tired of the sameness of the music before the film ended. I  had relished every minute of the movie and found myself reliving bygone days, as is my wont lately. I came to realize how that music had become the sound track of my life for a number of years even though it isn't so much now.

I was a fan of the Beatles early on and had followed their careers, more distantly as time went by. I was less a fan of John after Yoko, and of Paul after Heather. What meant the most to me was captured in 1964 by this one flicker in time. Sometimes when we see something through the eyes of others we can tell whether we had it right the first time. I'll stick with my first impression here. Whatever the younger generations feel about the movie, the music, and The Beatles, I'm pleased I saw A Hard Day's Night for the first time when it came out...and I was 24.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Hard Day's Dawn

The Beatles in A Hard Day's Night, 1964I
I was living in Atlanta when they first began to make the news, the moptop lads from Liverpool who were mopping it up as the vanguard of that exotic genre (in those days) known as British rock and roll. I was about their age, but they seemed much younger in their schoolboy garb and floppy hairdos. I was a married woman with a two-year-old and they looked like exuberant high schoolers.

Boys were wearing crewcuts still--or closely cropped and neatly combed coifs--when I first spotted a youngster in his early teens who was wearing his hair below the ears and obviously very much intendedly so. The Beatles had been on the cover of LIFE Magazine already. Yet I was astonished that the hairdo had already made it to Atlanta. I smiled. The Beatles. Yes.

They appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and we all watched. They sang at Yankee Stadium and created an unprecedented sensation--screaming, fainting, uncontrollable girls pulled hysterically at their dates and trembled with uncheckable passion. They made a movie which we couldn't wait to see. And it did not disappoint.

The Beatles capered into the 20th century with joy, wackiness, talent, and a sound tailored for its moment in time. I'm told the opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night" is unique and instantly recognizable, setting the stage (or screen, that is) for the particular chaos that calls for applause, laughter, and possible dancing in the aisles. After the troubling upheaval of the assassination of a youthful and appealing president, a baffling and painful war, and the reality of an uncertain future, the four young men exemplified fun, youth, vigor, testosterone--and, indirectly, hope. What was not to love?

The 50 intervening years saw The Beatles evolve as the rest of us did, sometimes leading the way, sometimes facing their own tragedies and tribulations. But in the days of A Hard Day's Night it was still all about joy and optimism.

My grandsons, aged 19 and 16, haven't seen the movie before. I'll alert them that the accent Liverpudlian is undecipherable at times; that the music was the kind Grandma used to like, and that they'll like the movie. I hope I'm right. We're going tomorrow night.