Plays and pleasures, December 2003
to Los Angeles again for theater and dining

Inez Storer in Santa Clara; dinner and a walk in Paso Robles

Dinner at Tre Venezie in Pasadena

Drama at the motel

Photography shows at Pomona and the Skirball Center

Miller, Shakespeare, and Molière at A Noise Within

The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World     

Paso Robles, Dec. 3 — Not even nine o’clock, and we are already fed, exercised, and half-way to Los Angeles.

We are in what used to seem to me an exotic place in the middle of nowhere, a place where the highway made an S-curve for no apparent reason and where God had put a hill in it, the first one since the heroic Cuesta grade north of San Luis Obispo.

This is where I stood for several hours, back in the early ’fifties, waiting for a ride. I’d been luck with the previous one; a woman of undeterminable age had picked me up in a brand-new Pontiac, and had got this far from Los Angeles before I could convince her that we were in fact driving north, that she would never get to San Juan Capistrano this way — it was her announced destination — and that she should set me down here, turn around, and drive south, past where she’d picked me up in Santa Monica, past Long Beach, drive for hours until she came to a big mission. But that’s another story.

We’re off for a short week of theater in Glendale: Shakespeare, Molière, and Arthur Miller, and whatever else manages to fit into the interstices. And we began yesterday, at dinner in San Francisco with friends, and then spending the night in their wonderful eighteen-foot-wide Western Addition palazzo, and getting up to a civilized breakfast of coffee and pastries and a friendly black cat.

In Santa Clara we saw a fabulous exhibition of paintings by our old friend Inez Storer. This was a retrospective of the last ten or twelve years, though there were two paintings from the early ’fifties, when I stood my ground in Paso Robles, that struck me as both authentic expressions of their period — the Beat Generation and all its existentialism — and fine paintings on their own terms, and looking forward to the subject that has always held her, domesticity and its imponderables.

The de Saisset Art Museum, at the University of Santa Clara, is almost completely full of her work — only a couple of basement galleries retain their fascinating historical material from the early days of the University and its parent Mission Santa Clara. And they seem to validate her work, with religious symbolism, reminders of generations of family household, the detritus of everyday life, the recurring details of facial expressions and gestures and clothing all insisting on the immediacy and naturalness and completely enigmatic secrecy of what all and any of this means to any one individual player in this endless theater.
please note that I shot these photos from the catalogue; the poor quality is strictly my fault
Inez Storer: Piano, 1962 The Conjurer, 2002
I think Inez triangulates, along with Nell Sinton and Joan Brown, a special corner of the California archtype — the genteel tradition and its rebellious female witnesses and, if I may chance this, controllers. This is the force that restrained the killers of the grizzlies, the played-out transcontinental drifters and dodgers. It civilized (as far as possible) the ascending generations of merchants, legislators, profiteers, vigilantes. And it stitched together a past, dimly recalling European class-based comfort and even luxury; a present, resigned to crudities and privations; and a future now past to us, comfortable and secure.

We have a lot to learn from this tradition; it is wrong to dismiss it as merely domestic or narrative. It is Civilization.

In San Jose we saw a second show of Inez’s: this one not of her work as an artist, but her accomplishments as a teacher, for it gathers painting (and a little bit of photography and mixed-media work) by a number of her former students. Fascinating to see them facing the same existential challenges and responding each in his (and her) own way; to see the moment of teaching as it inspires and informs and energizes the next generation.

Well: these two shows close this Sunday, as I understand it, and they should really not be missed by anyone who is involved with the visual arts and their significance to the meaning of the present moment.

But having seen them we drove on, and tonight we checked into an ordinary motel, the Adelaide Inn at the north end of town, and then walked twenty minutes through quite dark streets to dinner. Riverside Street runs along the highway, but it was pretty quiet at six o’clock. The moon had not yet come up, and the streetlights are dim and far between and absurdly high up on their all-purpose poles.

We walked past an incipient Christmas-tree lot, past the fairgrounds, past block after block of tiny wooden houses, many with low-wattage light bulbs on their porches. Some of these houses are hardly bigger than the sedans parked alongside them. Now and then there would be another kind of building: a granite-and-marble yard; the Luz Perpetua Iglesia.

Toward the end of the walk, nearing our goal, we walked past a furniture store, whose front door was just being locked by a stocky fellow who called out a good evening to us. We struck up a conversation: he had grown up on a ranch near Salinas, but when his twins came he knew he didn’t want to raise them in Salinas, and he came down here to Paso Robles.

I never lock anything, he said, I love it here, it’s still simple and friendly. I locked the store just now only because I’ve left one of the three-year-olds asleep in the office for a couple of minutes: I can’t replace him.

For all its stated simplicity, this seems to be a fine-bouche town: lots of restaurants with French names, bakeries, promising cafes — but also lots of ranch-hand saloons. There are thousands of acres of vineyards around, but still more cattle range. And in both the little houses and the ironwork and signage you get the feeling you’re in Alta California, the old California evolved from Mexican sensibilities.

At Bistro Laurent we had one of the best meals I’ve had recently. Lindsey made do with three courses: a green salad, a crab risotto, and floating island for dessert. (Oh, how I recall the Floating Island my grandmother made, and my mother’s, deep in its Pyrex baking-bowl.)

But I had the chef’s tasting menu. Normally tasting menus are a mistake, but this was beautifully programmed: tuna tartare with an Ostertag old-vines Riesling; sweetbreads quenelles with Savoy cabbage and Au Bon Climat pinot noir ’01; filet of beef with potato fondant and a (local) Harmony cabernet sauvignon ’01; caramelized apples with creme anglaise and a Muscadet Beaumes de Venise. I regret that I’d left my camera at the motel.

The menu here isn’t terribly long, but gives plenty of choices. The wine list is very intelligent even though it is very heavily weighted toward local Central Coast wineries. The dessert menu is the most attractive I’ve seen in a long, long time. We introduced ourselves to the chef, Laurent, a frenchman from Bretagne, tall and slim and friendly — he says Chez Panisse is one of his favorite restaurants, and I really think this week Bistro Laurent is one of mine.

And then twenty minutes back through the night, now under a full moon, to the motel, and a quiet night, I think, punctuated by an occasional passing train.

Tre Venezie: interior

Pasadena, Dec. 5
I begin to think that in spite of loyalties to Campanile and Lucques and A.O.C. my favorite restaurant in Los Angeles, the one I always want to return to, is Tre Venezie , on Green Street in old Pasadena. It’s part of these theater trips to Glendale: we first ate there a couple of years ago; we were back a year ago; we missed it in May but here we are again.

It’s such a comfortable place. I doubt it seats more than forty people. Of course we’ve always eaten early, before the theater; maybe it gets noisy later in the evening — but I doubt it. The room is a long box, a bookcase at one end with a good and careful selection of cookbooks, small paintings and prints on the walls, the kitchen out of sight around the corner.

There’s a small bar across from the front door, which itself is in a tiny courtyard off the sidewalk; and to the right of the bar as you come in, at the curtained windows giving onto the sidewalk, perhaps four tables where lunch is served. It was lunch we had today, but it might as well have been dinner; I don’t imagine the menu is much different.

Lindsey waited at the parking meter while I checked to see lunch was still being served at two o’clock. A middle-aged woman in cook’s whites was saying goodbye to a parting friend; I waited, then asked. Her reply had a slight Italian accent. I stepped back outside to beckon to Lindsey; then returned to my hostess: Arriva la Signora, I said, Fine, she said in Italian, sit where you like. She gestured in a friendly way to the tables at the window, only one of which was occupied — by two women lingering over their coffee.

There was one waiter, tall, thirtyish, attentive but quiet and unobtrusive — we’d seen him here before. He brought menus and the wine list. I ordered, without looking at the list, a glass of Prosecco and a bottle of San Pellegrino, and we examined the menus. (I’ve put photos of the menus , but not the winelist, elsewhere on the website: I hope you can read them.)

You could come here frequently. Since the menu is restricted to one region — the northeast of Italy — all the dishes combine well, and with half a dozen each of appetizers, pasta courses, and main courses, not counting daily specials not on the menu, there are scores of possible combinations.

Furthermore, all these dishes are interesting — not in the way so many dishes are merely trendily curious these days, but genuinely interesting as contemporary performances of slow, traditional recipes, recipes that have evolved in a specific place over generations, refining themselves along the way, dropping extraneous details and continually focussing their inherent gustatory meaning.

You can see what we ate in the photos: We felt like we were in Italy. To be precise, we felt we were eating the best Austrian food as it has become Italian. Each dish was well varied in tastes, textures, and to the eye — each except my gnocchi, of course, whose whole point was to avoid such culinary multitasking. With our lunch we drank a first-rate Collio, one of a number of half-bottles on the extremely interesting winelist.

If we had been making a night of Tre Venezie, not a bad idea, I would have explored the ratafias — infusions of various fruits and herbs in grappa, I imagine. Or I would have explored the grappas themselves: there are four pages, two alone from Piemonte. But we were not making a night of Tre Venezie; this was only lunch (though it obviated any normal supper), so we settled for dessert.

Lindsey conversed a bit with the cook, who is one of the owners, and who makes everything on the menu but the wines and the grappas — he makes the jams and sirups, the ratafias and rosolios. Meanwhile I talked to the waiter — toward the end of our lunch a guy had burst importantly into the room with a clipboard under his arm: The city requires us to inform you that we’ll be shooting a movie on the street tomorrow, and it’ll be closed off.

Ah, questo Los Angeles, I had said in a stage aside, and the waiter had been amused, and we talked it over a bit. It is apparently a common interruption.

   more photos from Tre Venezie

firemen at the door   Lindsey with the firemen

Fire in the motel! It’s just an ordinary motel; we usually sleep cheap and eat dear. (Even so it’s expensive by our standards, even though we booked it via — I suppose the loss of so much housing during last month’s fires has increased motel demand here in Los Angeles.)

But it’s a half block from the theater here in Glendale, A Noise Within, and there’s a Trader Joe’s a few blocks away, and it’s not far from freeway access, so I suppose I’d come here again. But I wouldn’t use the elevator.

Yesterday, just as we were putting finishing touches on the morning repairs to sleep-ravaged faces, we heard a loud bang, followed by what sounded like a rush of air. I didn’t pay any attention; it was just another of the inexplicable Glendale environmental noises, like yesterday’s leaf-blowers, last night’s helicopters. Besides, there’d been a couple of worker trucks in the parking lot, bristling with booms and windlasses and other such erector-set attachments.

I stepped into the closet-sink-refrigerator area for a glass of water, and smelled something electrical. Coffee spilled onto the Mister Coffee, I figured. But when I opened the front door for the first air of the day I saw the maids standing around on our second-floor outdoors corridor, and a bustling of men directly below us.

A circuit-breaker had blown in the electrical panel just below our room. No problem, the maintenance guy smiled, no cause for concern here. I asked a young woman if there’d been any damage. No, she said, no problem at all, except the elevator.

Another woman, from a nearby room, said a family was trapped in the elevator and couldn’t get out. I went to the office to see what the official word is. No problem, the clearly puzzled woman behind the desk said. Is there a family in the elevator? No, she said, just one person.

By then the fire department was on the scene, two trucks and a dozen men. The trucks couldn’t get into the parking lot, since the prevailing stucco motel architecture of the 1960s featured a low canopy all across the entry, to protect arriving guests from falling smog.

The men trooped across the parking lot carrying chain saws, rakes, shovels, axes, extinguishers, and grappling hooks. From their harness dangled flashlights, radios, clipboards, knives — you could have hidden three or four MP3 players and a couple of play stations among all this stuff.

They looked casual and unconcerned. Just another day. The elevator maintenance man arrived, parked his beat-up van, and sauntered past the tiny swimming pool toward the elevator, which was immediately adjacent the circuit-panel room.

Our room was directly above. The smoke was pretty acrid. We had to evacuate, of course: I’d already grabbed this laptop, my wallet and pocket computer, and the camera; Lindsey had finished dressing and grabbed her purse. But then we were told we’d have to change rooms.

After the smoke cleared we went back in to pack, which only took a few minutes, and we were moved eight or ten doors down the corridor. The family, or the person, or the couple, depending on who you listened to, apparently got out of the elevator safely.

The firemen stood around in a desultory group, deciding who had the least seniority and would therefor have to write up the incident. A second detachment appeared from somewhere, a little late I thought, and were told by the rookie with the clipboard that it had been touch and go for a while but everything was under control. The officer in charge noticed my overhearing all this and winked at me.

Everything’s back to normal now. There’s a noisy family next door, but that’s motel life, the theater a block in one direction, the May Company a block in the other.

Los Angeles, Dec. 6—Another theme this trip: photos. Not my own: I stupidly forgot the camera while in Paso Robles, and found things too dark to photograph last night at our second good restaurant of the trip, JAR (about which more later).

Not my photos. Better ones. We drove out to Pomona to see a show of photographs by Wright Morris, who had studied briefly, then, later, taught for many years at Pomona College. (A history of that college, and its influence on such students as Morris and John Cage, would be worth reading.)

One of the things I like about coming to Glendale is its centrality; it’s an easy drive to Pomona, or Santa Monica, as long as the freeways are fluid — though it must be said driving the freeways can be nerve-wracking to a rustic approaching seventy.

The campus at Pomona — actually the Claremont Colleges — takes you back to the Eisenhower administration. You hardly believe you’re still in Los Angeles County. The residential blocks surrounding the campus are neat and quiet, with broad tree-lined streets leading past decent-sized detached homes with lawns and driveways. The little business district at the entrance to the campus is modest and one-storeyed; it reminds me of Berkeley’s Shattuck and Vine back in the 1950s.

The campus itself, like everything here, is flat and level, its buildings serious and substantial but not ostentatious or madly huge. They lie among their lawns and shrubbery protected by tall dark oaks and, of course, the occasional palm.

Wright Morris was both novelist and photographer, one of those rare artists able to work with both the visual and the verbal; to know which sense to use for a particular expression, when one sense could come to the aid of the other in his examination of the life around him, and when it was best to rely on one alone. The exhibition makes me want more of him, much more: it’s fifty years since I read anything of his (Love Among the Cannibals, of which I remember only the delicious title), and exhibitions of his photographs seem infrequent.

Perhaps because of Morris’s dual creativty his photographs have been overshadowed by those of the well-known Farm Security photographers, like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. His work is completely different, though contemporary, and responsive to the same national (indeed global) disaster, the crop failure of the thirties following the stock market crash of the late twenties. (An intersection of human social mistake with unforseen climate swing: we’d better take heed, I think.)

Born in Nebraska in 1910 (the year my mother was born), left motherless before he was ten, living and working on an uncle’s farm, going away to college in Los Angeles in 1930, spending a year in Europe three years later, returning to learn to be a writer (not to learn to write, he seems to have been born knowing how to write), there’s a lot about Morris recalling Cage’s life, and a certain amount that’s quite familiar to me — though I never lacked a mother, and of course my experience is a generation later.

His photographs are moody, objective, unpeopled, careful, laconic — and, to Lindsey and me, evocative. Evocative not only for their constant and poignant sense of place and time, though that’s affecting enough, with its catalogue, too dry for nostalgia, of farms, plains, small towns, grain elevators, barber shops, farmhouse parlors.

It’s not the visual information of these photographs, but the facts that information communicates — of both the subject, whether landscape or interior, and the artist himself. Morris clearly records his world in order to know it more intimately, to understand, with that fine nonverbal visual intelligence, the details that catch his eye. All this detritus (what Duchamp calls the junk of life), eccentric details (a smalltown barber’s odd collection of houseplants), the eloquent accidents of surreally juxtaposed advertising placards on hopeless, futureless storefronts — surely all these details are the words of some unknown vocabulary; we have only to find a Rosetta Stone to begin to construct something meaningful from them.

But the Stone is missing still; the meaning, if any, always eludes us. At times, as now in this exhibition, we feel, Lindsey and I, that internally we understand something approaching this meaning; but it can’t be verbalized, certainly can’t be communicated across generations. Morris has, for the moment, lifted us from Glendale 2003; we are set down among the time and place of our parents’ generation.

Lindsey in the Skirball Center garden Lindsey admiring the garden at Skirball Center

A similar drive in the other direction , west, takes us from sleepy tree-shaded 1950s college-town to high arid hills overlooking decidedly early-21st-century L.A. and the Skirball Center of Jewish culture, modestly ostentatious rather than flagrantly so like its richer cousing the Getty Center down the freeway a couple of miles.

Here we saw another photographic record of American life, quite a large collection ranging from Daguerrotypes from the 1840s up to the present (or nearly so). We were led through, at first, by a docent, who called our attention to the contrast of black and white, the different emotional meanings of horizontal and vertical lines, and the record of social injustice which has, fortunately, resulted in social correction: no longer do children break up coal or labor in spinning mills, no longer are immigrants crowded into sweatshops; no longer are aging former slaves referred to as Uncle Ben. (I longed for documentary photographs of the Arizona desert and the hundreds who have died attempting to cross it in recent years.)

Then we walked back through, looking at the photos rather than the exhibit, which had separated them not chronologically but into rather forced thematic areas. Taken individually they were really quite wonderful: some by artists well known to me, like Stieglitz and Evans and Outerbridge; others by photographers I will have to get to know; still others apparently lucky accidents by anonymous Kodak opertors — an arresting photographs from the early years of the last century showing a woman frozen in the midst of a well-clad dive into an Adirondack pond, for example.

There were fascinating shots of city streets in the late 19th century; Eadward Muybridge’s memorable panorama of an 1870s San Francisco taken from Nob Hill; a desolate view from the same site just after the 1906 earthquake and fire (will we ever see such destruction again in an American city, I wonder). There were portraits of ordinary folks, of inventors, of Abraham Lincoln, of Evelyn Nesbit — famous (or infamous) in her day, apparently, as the inspirer of a domestic murder, but unknown to me.

Altogether I felt the show had suffered from curatorial intent and the docent’s good-hearted but superficial survey. This is how the public, especially school-children, is being introduced these days to Art, which apparently would otherwise remain enigmatic and irrelevant. There was a tension developing, behind my active mind, between Wright Morris’s disciplined but joyous examination of his world and this curatorial examination of what seemed almost a random assortment of Daguerrotypes, ambrotypes, gelatin silver prints, carbro process prints.

We wandered into yet another exhibition, Lauren Greenfield’s Girl Culture — a terribly sad survey of female adolescence in today’s America. Anorexia, obesity, overt sexuality, herd instinct, superficiality — all riding the root cause, I think, of this ubiquitous disaster: personal insecurity in a context of social and familial meaninglessness.

The large color photos were hung alongside panels recording Greenfield’s interviews with the subjects, who speak of sex and drugs, boredom and anomie, sexual manipulativeness and victimship. The exhibit hangs in a wide hall outside the Skirball Center restaurant, and most of the visitors paused at one photo or another, or ignored them entirely, wandering among the inexpensive chairs and tables in this corridor-gallery which suddenly recalled a San Fernando Valley patio, the photos like so many palms, the visitors browsing the refreshments, their desultory conversation, the all too visible signs of trouble in our place and time, too much trouble to deal with.

On, then, to dinner at JAR, a restaurant whose name simply indicates Just Another Restaurant — a conceit just a tiny bit misleading, for while the menu is just American comfort-food, the shopping is careful and the execution is discerning .

To cite only the "braises & sautes" — there are also grills and specials and such — there is a signature pot roast with carrots and caramelized onions, pork shank with apples and calvados, coq au vin, lamb shank with star anice, coriander, and garlic, and a Salisbury steak: chopped sirloin topped with a fried egg and surrounded by green peppercorn sauce. (You can find the entire menu at We began with a Martini, mixed with a raised eyebrow at my specification, and a glass of pinot grigio, and then sat at a bar table where it would be quieter — in a small alcove for people unconcerned with seeing or being seen.

Lindsey ordered an iceberg-lettuce salad with Green Goddess dressing and thought of Marion Cunningham, — it’s a favorite of hers — and I had a chopped salad: lettuce, celery, carrots, onion, under a creamy dressing. Home cooking. And then the Salisbury steak and the pot roast, and for dessert apple crisp and a postmodern version of banana cream pie; and then with friends who’d dropped by for an hour’s talk a glass of brandy. A nice place, and I’d eat there again: but bring your wallet; real estate on Beverly Boulevard comes high.

Glendale, Dec. 7— But we came here, after all, to see theater. A Noise Within (awkward name) is the local repertory company, spun off I believe from San Francisco’s A.C.T., but profiting from the great number of actors (and the even greater number of set properties) available in Greater Tinseltown. We made its acquaintance by chance, two or three years ago, when we were down here for some other reason and noticed that Noel Coward’s Private Lives was playing in town. It was a delicious production, and we decided to come back for more.

It’s possible to see all six productions in the company’s season by making two trips to Glendale, one early in December, one late in April or early in May. We did that last year, seeing a memorable Measure for Measureand a rare Il re cervo along with Chekhov and others; and we’re doing it again now. Next spring we’ll see The Matchmaker, Elektra, and Twelfth Night; this week we’ve seen Coriolanus and Artur Miller’s 1968 play The Price.

I wish I’d liked this production of Coriolanus more. It got quite a favorable capsule review in L.A. Weekly, chiefly I think for the acting of the title role and the staging of the battle scene. But we found both these labored and overdone. Where last season’s Meaure for Measure was nuanced but still clearly pointed toward social criticism of all too current apolitical situation, this Coriolanus seemed strident and heavy-handed.

It was also top-heavy. This is partly Shakespeare’s fault: in fact this is not his best play: though it functions well as a prelude to Julius Caesar, it focusses too restrictedly on too implausible a main character to really work. But this top-heaviness was not softened by the direction, and no wonder: it was co-directed by Geoff Elliott, who played Coriolanus, and his wife. Elliott had played the chief character in the previous evening’s The Price, and moved effortlessly from that role to this — but appently by making Coriolanus himself continuously effortful.

It didn’t help at all that Mitchel Edmonds played the crucial role of Menenius, Coriolanus’s indispensable (and inevitable) friend-dramatic foil, as a silly pedantic fop, rushing past the lines as if they were silly pedantic details to be brushed aside. Stephen Rockwell and William Dennis Hunt projected the important roles of the tribunes — who raise the people against Coriolanus’s rise to consulship — as small, timid, wheedling busybodies. Bo Foxworth was perhaps the most successful of the supporting actors as Tullus Aufidius, and Jill Hill was effective as Coriolanus’s wife Virgilia (though directed to be too weak and weepy, I thought, to be a convincing Roman matron). As Volumnia, the manipulative stage-mother to Coriolanus, June Claman condensed all the stridency, the bitterness, and the rancor of this production — a strong performance, but distasteful.

Still, that’s only my taste. More to my taste was Arthur Miller’s The Price, which we didn’t know — a play about two brothers, bitterly ignoring one another for years, the one having rejected the other, their father, and the squalor of their lives to become a wealthy and famous surgeon and investor; the other having stayed with his father and given up a career in science to become an ordinary cop.

It’s a tight, compact play, only four in the cast — the others being the cop’s resentful wife and an old Jewish trader in junk, the junk of life, for the brothers are finally selling off the father’s furnishings, years after his death. In that role Len Lesser dominates the first act: funny, soulful, intelligent, patient, and a little avaricious, his character stands for impartial Nature, I think, and Lesser conveys all her complexity, the richness of her detail.

In the second act it’s the cop brother who dominates: Victor Franz is all the best of humanity as it strives against the neutral and contradictory demands of Nature. And who should portray this role but Geoff Elliott, who — again with his wife Julia Rodriguez-Elliott — co-directs the show as well. He is tremendously sympathetic in the role, projecting nobility and generosity counterpoised against the stiff, successful, finally apologetic material success of his surgeon brother Walter, here played by a resourceful Robertson Dean.

Deborah Strang is the wife, Esther, clearly and again sympathetically injecting the note of individual anguish and outrage Miller’s symbolic plot requires. Here’s the nut: the surgeon stands for rejecting one’s father, one’s source, the past, for the sake of the present and through it the future; the cop stands for respecting one’s father, one’s source, one’s heritage, for the sake of integrity. Wright Morris must have loved it. It’s a good play, a very good play, and this is a remarkably successful production.

And now I’m just home from Molière’s The Miser, which was hysterically funny. I’ll say here only that David Chambers’s adaptation — to Paris, 1929, and framed by Edith Piaf recordings — is right on the money, as you might say; and that while Mark Bramhall’s performance as Harpagon would have eclipsed a weaker cast, so detailed and funny and even occasionally moving it was, still the rest of the cast — all nine of them — turned out a beautifully balanced, even symmetrical performance.

The gags are centuries old; the plot creaks; the lines telegraph themselves. I’d see it every week if I could. It was a perfect afternoon in the theater — for it was a matinee, and after a couple of hours we’re into the theater again, all the way across town, to witness the idiot band, I use the word in its root sense, that was The Shaggs.

And now we're back from The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, a musical by Joy Gregory and Gunnar Madsen, playing in the tiny Ford Theater. I'm told this is a quite faithful account of the rise and collapse of this oddly appealing rock band, composed of three tone-deaf sisters pressured by their desparately poor father into saving the family by entering pop stardom.

The original Shaggs sound is allowed to come through Madsen's score only rarely. Perhaps an entire evening of it would be too fatiguing. In any case Madsen's score is effective and often affecting, and the small but energetic cast makes a persuasive case for Gregory's account of this sad, secretly motivated example of Outsider Art intersecting with the commercial world of pop music. Ironically, the cult success the band finally enjoyed came too late; the father was dead in his forties literally of a broken heart, and the girls have gone on to the more mundane world they had hoped to escape. Rarely has such sadness been so entertainingly recounted.

The girls were played with depth and musicality (perhaps too much for authenticity) by Hedy Burress, Sarah Hays, and Jamey Hood; Steven Patterson was remarkably strong and eloquent as the driven father; Laura Lamson was movingly sympathetic as the put-upon mother; Rob Moore grew sensitively into the role of Kyle Nelson; and Joe Fria and Hubert Hodgin capably took on the remaining ten roles. I’m glad I saw them. And that’s the end of a five-day theater-and-dining vacation. Now we’ll take it easy through the rest of December, and then it’s off again — to Rome.

rev. December 2003      Other travel writing