One Month In

My first four weeks in San Francisco have gone very quickly.  So far, it’s been a happy and exciting time, and I’ve already gained some west coast wisdom that I felt compelled to share with my readers, most of whom are back east.

Real estate moves at the speed of light
In my first weekend here, I was seeing four apartments a day–or rather, I was supposed to be seeing four apartments a day.  If I had planned to attend the latter half of an open house, I often got a phone call from a polite but obviously relieved agent hours before I was supposed to arrive, telling me the apartment had just been taken.  One such call came in twenty minutes after the open house had started.

The competition for housing in San Francisco is fierce, despite the prices being steeper than some of the city’s famous hills.  My new home–coincidentally, the first apartment I saw on my search– is at the top of my budget, but for this town, it was a great deal: close to buses and busy streets, perfectly proportioned for the furniture I brought with me, and in a nice neighborhood that feels stereotypically San Francisco.  Plus, the owner came down from the original asking price!

San Franciscans are cold-blooded
I don’t mean this socially.  I mean this biologically.  San Franciscans, like modern reptiles, are ectothermic.  How else can I explain the fact that, despite temperatures daily climbing into the 60s, all of my new neighbors walk around wearing knit hats and North Face jackets and scarves pulled tight around their necks?  Maybe its my continued elation at escaping the record-breaking east coast winter, or maybe it’s because I regularly break into a sweat scaling those aforementioned hills, but I have yet to be cold here.  I will always celebrate that the mercury rarely dips below 40 here, and steadfastly refuse to ever become one of the Lizard People.

Treasure the subway
When I visited the upper midwest a few years ago, I came up with a theory that there were two kinds of American cities: those that were developed before the invention of the automobile and those that were developed after.  The key difference: public transportation.  On the Northeast Corridor, we take our mass transit for granted.  Four weeks on the west coast, and I am not ashamed to say that I already miss the New York City subway.

Yes, it was more expensive than public transit here.  Yes, it could be filthy and frightening.  Yes, it is statistically proven to be getting worse.  But it made the five boroughs so convenient.  Here, unless you’re traveling out of the city, the bus is your only option–which goes a long way toward explaining why SF is the birthplace of Uber.

I’m not saying the bus is bad.  It’s just not that great.  We’ll see what happens once I have a regular commute to deal with.  I might not feel so generous when I’m late to work.

There’s a little bit of Jersey in everyone
I’ve learned that San Franciscans work hard and party harder.  This was never more apparent than on March 14, when San Francisco celebrated St. Patrick’s Day.  An evening wander down Union Street suddenly had me feeling like I was back on Washington Boulevard in Hoboken, as hordes of bros and their female companions (lady bros?) spilled out of crowded bars and into tiny pizzerias, all while trying not to spill their guts on the sidewalk.

I’ve come to understand that the Marina neighborhood is more or less the San Francisco equivalent of Hoboken, a distinction the community seems to have embraced.  In an odd way, that just makes this city feel even more like home to me.  Much the same way I could stroll across the canal from Jersey City into the post-collegiate fantasyland that was Ho-bro-ken, I can now just walk down the hill into San Francisco’s local den of popped colors and pastel shorts whenever I’m feeling homesick.

It’s just goddamned beautiful
One thing that has not gotten old–and I hope never does–is the sheer beauty of this place.  When I walk to either end of my block, I can round the corner and come face to face with a wide view of San Francisco Bay.  Most buildings in my neighborhood, at the top of a hill, are less than six stories high, which means there’s always a tremendous amount of sky to see.  I’m two blocks from a park that has outrageous southern views of the city.  Some of the most outrageous homes I’ve ever seen are scattered throughout my neighborhood.  There’s even something strangely pleasant about the occasional fog horn I can hear at night from a ship in the bay.

When I’m not looking for work, begrudgingly shopping for furniture, or trying to make some friends, I just walk around the city, admiring it all.  I’ve taken some pictures, like the one above of San Francisco’s Palace of the Fine Arts.  You can see more on my Instagram.  Just click the icon on the left margin.

It’s been a good first month.  I hope the next four weeks lead to a more solid routine.  I’ll be sure to update you about all of it–the expected and the spontaneous–so stay tuned!

~ T

The Adventure Begins Again

Since my last post, I’ve finished my Master’s degree, had three-and-a-half jobs, and made a huge decision which inspired me to, among other things, get back to writing.

Tomorrow, I’m moving to San Francisco.  I don’t know that many people there.  I don’t have a job lined up.  I don’t even have a place to live yet.  But tomorrow, I’m moving to San Francisco.

You might think this is an absurd plan.  There have been moments these past few weeks when I would have agreed with you.  But this is something I’ve been thinking about for over a year now, and I have my reasons.

I finished my Master’s.
After two-and-a-half years of weekend and evening classes all year round, I completed my Master’s in December.  It was a battle, but a fulfilling one.  Finishing the program meant that not only could I open more doors in the job market (hopefully), it also meant that I no longer had a binding obligation to stay in New York.  More than my jobs, more than my friends and family, school required that I be on the east coast.  Now that my diploma’s being printed, that’s no longer a concern.

I’m thirty and single.
It’s been a real treat to watch so many friends of mine start families of their own over the past few years.  While they’re well on their way to laying down permanent roots in the greater New York area, I’m still a free agent.  I have the kind of flexibility that most people my age have sacrificed (for perfectly good reasons).  I don’t intend to be single forever.  There will come a time when I’ll have someone else to consider in my plans.  So before that happens, I’m rolling the dice.

My family is happy, healthy, and secure.
The only two people in my life who could have put the kibosh on this move are my brother and my mother.  My brother has an army of friends, a nice apartment, and a job he loves.  My mother is perfectly capable of living in her house for another twelve to fifteen years before I have to start worrying about it.  They’ve offered nothing but encouragement as I’ve planned this next adventure, and they’re already looking forward to visiting.

I hate the winter.
Let me be a bit clearer: I fucking hate the winter.  I absolutely, 110%, utterly and completely hate the winter.  This is not exaggeration.  Ask my friends.  I’ve nearly ruined entire evenings with my contempt for the season.  When I was discussing my move to the Bay Area in mixed company, someone said, “Oh, and you can go skiing in Tahoe!”  I looked at this person and said, “You’re missing the whole point of this move, aren’t you?”

I love San Francisco.
I’m a well-traveled person, and I’ve rarely had as strong and positive a reaction to a place as I had to San Francisco.  I first visited the city after finishing college and always wanted to go back.  When I returned in late 2013, it took all of six blocks for me to think that it wouldn’t be the worst thing if I didn’t go home.  It’s a beautiful, accessible, and interesting city with tons of history, culture, and yes, baseball.  It might be expensive, and the weather can be wacky, but on every visit it’s just felt right.

So the belongings have been boxed, the one-way ticket has been booked, and the farewells have been said.  The next great adventure starts tomorrow, and I’ll be posting here intermittently about my exploits in my new hometown.  I hope you’ll follow along.  I expect to have plenty of stories to tell.

~ T

Why the United States Should Boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics

The following was part of my midterm for the latest class I’ve been taking at NYU (yes, I am voluntarily in summer school).  We had to write an op-ed piece.  This got high praise from my professor, and I’m pretty proud of it.  I promise that the next time I return from a months-long absence in writing, it will be with something less serious.

The ongoing government-sanctioned abuses and discrimination of homosexuals in Russia demand a strong international response.  To that end, the United States should lead a boycott of the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.  A boycott would be a public, wide-reaching, and impactful way to demonstrate that these repressive policies adopted by the Russian government are unacceptable to the global community.

This summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a federal law forbidding any “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations around minors.”  Legal analysts and gay rights activists describe the law as intentionally vague.  By this new definition, “propaganda” could be something as overt as a gay pride march or as innocuous as a same-sex couple holding hands as they walked down the street.

Gays and lesbians in Russia are already denied the rights enjoyed by gays and lesbians in some other Western nations.  Russia does not grant legal recognition to any committed gay or lesbian couple, nor does it allow them to adopt children.  This new propaganda law elevates the disenfranchisement of LGBT Russians from denying their rights to forbidding any public discussion of the matter.

The open discrimination of Russia’s LGBT citizens by the government has been matched by open violence against Russia’s LGBT citizens in the streets.  Rallies in support of LGBT rights have dispersed into chaos, with anti-gay counter-protestors hurling eggs and rocks at those calling for equality.  Some instances have been more severe.  LGBT advocates leading these demonstrations have been assaulted and beaten, both by their ideological adversaries and by Russian police.

Most alarmingly, this violence has not been limited to these public gatherings.  Young gay men in Russia are being targeted by bigots via the Internet, who lure them into meetings where they are humiliated and harmed.  Some of these encounters have been videotaped and distributed online.  There have been lethal consequences.  The Spectrum Human Rights Alliance reports that some of the victims have since killed themselves, unable to face the trauma of their torment or the shame of being so crudely outed to friends and family.

Mr. Putin’s government has created a culture in which the physical and psychological abuse of its LGBT citizens is tacitly approved, if not outright encouraged.  Seemingly unsatisfied with diminishing people in his own nation, Mr. Putin has now widened the scope of his bigotry.

The propaganda law includes a provision for how to deal with foreigners found to be in violation of its statutes.  In addition to facing monetary fines, gay or “pro-gay” visitors to Russia may now be detained for “up to fourteen days before facing expulsion from the country.”

With thirty-eight nations already committed to participating in the 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia will see a tremendous influx of foreign visitors next year.  Any of those visitors, whether they are athletes or spectators or journalists, whether they are homosexuals or not, will be subject to the propaganda law.  The International Olympic Committee, the body that organizes the Olympic Games, stated that it had received assurances from the Russian government that LGBT athletes would be free from prosecution during the games.  That statement was swiftly countered by Russia’s Minister of Sport, Vitaly Mutko.

“No one is forbidding an athlete with non-traditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi,” Mr. Mutko said, “But if he goes onto the street and starts propagandizing it, then of course he will be held accountable.”

In other words, a gay athlete is free to compete for a gold medal; but if he thanks his boyfriend for his love and support in a televised interview, he would likely be arrested.

To protest these draconian laws and this environment of hate, the United States should boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics.  Participation in these Games would be an insult to the LGBT citizens of Russia, to LGBT people worldwide, and to the peaceful spirit of the Olympics themselves.

The history of the modern Olympic Games is filled with boycotts.  Most were political posturing between rivals.  Countries have been uninvited from the Olympics over political grudges.  Host cities have even had that honor rescinded because of their political allegiances.

Only once in the history of the modern Olympic Games has action been taken in response to a humanitarian crisis.  In 1964, the International Olympic Committee banned South Africa from all future Olympic competition due to its refusal to correct the injustices of apartheid.  The ban lasted twenty-one years, and was only lifted when the South African government had demonstrated that it was making substantial progress in treating its citizens equally regardless of race.

The legal discrimination of citizens based on their sexuality is as abhorrent as the legal discrimination of citizens based on their race.  Those who would argue that one offense outweighs the other fail to understand that civil rights are human rights, and that we are all human.

A boycott of the Sochi Olympics would raise awareness not only of the plight of LGBT people in Russia, but of LGBT people around the world.  Of the thirty-eight nations already committed to participating, only eleven grant full marriage equality to their homosexual citizens, and only nine grant those people full adoption privileges.  If the Sochi Olympics are boycotted on the grounds of homosexual discrimination, Russia will not be the only nation to have its gay rights policies reexamined with greater scrutiny.

The United States would benefit from leading a boycott.  Our nation has been working to regain the moral authority we were believed to have possessed in decades past.  An Olympic boycott would be the right opportunity to reaffirm the founding principles of our nation to a global audience: personal liberty, freedom from government tyranny, and the opportunity to succeed without the hindrance of discrimination.

A boycott would also have the effect of stimulating further discussion of our own ongoing struggle with LGBT rights.  Only thirteen of our fifty states currently offer citizens marriage equality.  While the Supreme Court decision that repealed the Defense of Marriage Act was a victory for the American LGBT community, the logistics of distributing the federal benefits now guaranteed to LGBT Americans remain to be clarified.  There are also the continued instances of the bullying and resultant suicides of America’s LGBT youth.  A boycott would remind us of the work that remains to be done here at home.

There are some who disagree with the calls for a boycott.  Openly gay Olympic speed skater Blake Skjellerup said he intends to compete in Sochi.  He is among those who believe there is more power in presence than absence.  People who share Mr. Skjellerup’s opinion no doubt hope to see an openly gay athlete on the winner’s podium in Sochi.  While the possibility of a gay parallel to Jesse Owens’s success as a black athlete in Hitler’s ethnocentric Germany is an alluring prospect for the cause, refusing to accept the invitation of a nation that institutionalizes such bigotry is a far stronger statement.

Other arguments against a boycott barely pass muster.  Openly gay Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir has discouraged a boycott because it would deprive the athletes of “possibly having their lone life-changing moment” of Olympic glory.  He has also given shockingly reductive advice to any LGBT athletes planning to attend: “If you don’t call attention to yourself, attention won’t come to you.”  This is particularly ironic coming from someone who has appeared in more reality television programs than Olympics, where he has never finished higher than fifth place.  Mr. Weir’s are the weakest of arguments against a boycott, steeped in vanity and unbecoming of an athlete meant to represent America to world.

Russia pursued the hosting privilege for the 2014 Winter Olympics to demonstrate to the world that it is a twenty-first century nation, a first-world power with bountiful resources, modern infrastructure, and an open outlook on the world.  However, Mr. Putin’s escalating persecution of his LGBT citizens shows the true face of Russia: blustering, bigoted, and receding towards the totalitarianism of its past.  A boycott of the Sochi Olympics is America’s only recourse, lest we associate ourselves with Mr. Putin’s policies by willfully participating in the games.  There is nothing less than this at stake.  Sending athletes to Sochi would signal to Russia and to the world that we choose to ignore the abundant evidence of these ongoing human rights abuses.  Attendance is equivalent to complicity, and no American should tolerate that.

~ T

“Star Wars”: The “Lost” Episodes

The nerd world combusted like Alderaan when it was announced last Thursday that J.J. Abrams, creator of such memorable genre works as Alias, Cloverfield, and his magnum opus, Lost, would be directing the first of an as-yet-unspecified number of new Star Wars films.  At the end of 2012, the Walt Disney Company purchased George Lucas’s LucasFilm for the galaxy-sized sum of $4 billion, and promised fans that more big screen adventures in the galaxy far, far away would be forthcoming.  Speculation immediately began as to what direction the franchise would now take, and who would be at the helm.

Now that the project has a director and a writer (Little Miss Sunshine scribe Michael Arndy), fans like myself can begin to salivate over what might be coming to multiplexes in 2015.  The House of Mouse has neither confirmed nor denied that the new films will be influenced by existing Star Wars lore, which is so abundant that even a die-hard like me has barely scratched the surface.  However, I did start to wonder how it might be that Abrams could find a way to reunite with some of his Lost actors.  I mean, when you think about it, the similarities between the two franchises are blindingly obvious.  Both are six-chapter epics chronicling the adventures of a wide network of characters–characters connected through coincidence, dire circumstance, or family ties they never knew existed–fighting the never-ending struggle of good and evil, both in the world they inhabit and within themselves.  So here’s some suggestions for how we could see our favorite island castaways swashbuckling across the stars…

(Caution: Spoilers abound!)

Nestor Carbonell as Grand Admiral Thrawn
Nestor 2
Perhaps the most beloved and recognized of all the Star Wars characters who never appeared in the six films, Thrawn was a villain created by author Timothy Zahn to be the anti-Vader: calm, methodical, almost academic–but no less dedicated to the destruction of the Rebel Alliance.  In Zahn’s first trilogy of novels, Thrawn takes the reigns of the shattered Empire nine years after the Battle of Endor, and puts the Rebels on the ropes by using his most powerful weapon: his superior intellect.  Carbonell, who was always so intriguing as the enigmatic Richard Alpert, would be perfect for playing the alien mastermind.  The requisite red contact lenses would do nothing to diminish the intensity of Carbonell’s stare.  And I think hearing him deliver Thrawn’s delectable last words (“But…it was so artistically done.”) would give me goosebumps.

Michael Emerson as Nom Anor
Michael EmersonWhen Star Wars books jumped publishing houses from Bantam to Del Rey, they embarked on an ambitious first project: a multi-volume story chronicling the next generation of heroes as they battled alien conquistadors from another galaxy who thrived on pain and were invisible to the Force.  The New Jedi Order series featured many great new characters, and developed existing ones in very unexpected and controversial ways.  One thing fans could agree on, though, was that at its center, the New Jedi Order series had its most captivating villain since…well, Thrawn.  Nom Anor was an advance agent of the alien Yuuzhan Vong who had been fermenting trouble throughout the galaxy in an attempt to destabilize the New Republic ahead of the Vong invasion.  Throughout the series, Anor donned assorted disguises and personas to execute the will of his superiors, manipulating major players against each other.  If there’s one actor who can pull off dangerous ambiguity, it’s Michael Emerson, who helped to take the character of Benjamin Linus so far beyond the three episodes in which he was originally intended to appear.

Ian Somerhalder as Kyp Durron
Ian Somerhalder
Kyp is an interesting character.  Created by prolific sci-fi author Kevin J. Anderson for his Jedi Academy trilogy, Kyp represented what might have happened to Luke Skywalker if he hadn’t had devoted guardians or a wise mentor to guide him.  A teenage slave in the spice mines of Kessel, Kyp was rescued by Han Solo, who took him to Yavin 4 to join Luke’s inaugural class of new Jedi trainees.  Unfortunately, Kyp was a bit damaged, and his inability to control his raw power and emotions saw him knocking Luke into a coma, hijacking an Imperial superweapon, and welcoming the demonic possession of a long-dead Sith Lord.  To the credit of Anderson and many subsequent authors, Kyp was redeemed and thoroughly fleshed out over time.  He was a philosophical foil to Luke in the New Jedi Order series.  He also had a complicated teacher-student relationship with Han’s daughter, Jaina.  At the risk of dipping back into the same well–a young man eager to prove himself, confounded by his own desires–I could see Ian Somerhalder, Lost‘s doomed Boone Carlyle, in the role.

Matthew Fox as Ulic Qel-Droma
Matthew Fox
It is possible, but very unlikely, that instead of carrying the Star Wars story forward, Abrams and Andry might take it backward.  What I mean is that they could choose to adapt one of the most revered pieces of Star Wars lore, Tom Veitch’s Tales of the Jedi comic series, which takes place 4,000 years before R2-D2 and C-3PO crash-landed on sunny Tatooine.  The central figure of the Tales saga is Ulic Qel-Droma, an upstanding Jedi Knight whose desire to keep the galaxy he served and the people he loved free from harm ultimately led to his own fall to the Dark Side.  I admit, the thematic elements of Star Wars can be a bit repetitive.  Still, the character of Ulic gets a lot of emotional mileage.  Unlike Anakin Skywalker, Ulic doesn’t conveniently die moments after his redemption.  A significant portion of Tales is devoted to Ulic’s post-redemption exile, and his struggle to forgive himself for his heinous crimes.  Matthew Fox does well as a tortured soul anchoring a large ensemble of characters.  There’s even ample opportunity in Tales for a “We have to go back!” moment.

Elizabeth Mitchell as Nomi Sunrider
Elizabeth Mitchell
This is my favorite bit of cross-over casting.  Elizabeth Mitchell was so wonderful as Juliet Burke.  Throughout her tenure on Lost, she had to be by turns desperate, heartsick, commanding, vengeful, and hopeful.  These are all things that describe the character Nomi Sunrider, who was Ulic Qel-Droma’s love interest in Tales of the Jedi.  Widowed when her Jedi husband is murdered by gangsters, Nomi soon harnesses her own Force potential and finds herself on the front lines of some of the Old Republic’s most legendary conflicts.  It is in these dire situations that she meets and finds love again with Ulic Qel-Droma.  When it becomes clear that Ulic can neither be turned back to the light nor defeated in combat, Nomi employs one of the rarest and most awesome of Force abilities to bring an end to his reign of terror.  It’s one of the best and most poetic moments in the entire franchise.  Watching Mitchell perform it would be a treat.

Terry O’Quinn as Booster Terrik
Terry O'Quinn
I know.  You’re probably thinking that Terry O’Quinn, who so masterfully played the conflicted John Locke and his evil doppelgänger, should be playing Darth So-and-So; but that would be too easy.  I’d much rather see O’Quinn tap into his rambunctious side by playing seasoned smuggler Booster Terrik.  Created out of a collaboration between Timothy Zahn and Michael Stackpole, Booster was introduced as a new underworld ally for our Rebel heroes.  Personally, I thought he was the end result of a clever “what if”; that being, “what if Han Solo had never joined the Rebellion?”  Booster was a smart-mouthed, blustering, proudly improper scoundrel who, like all such characters in Star Wars, had an underlying heart of gold.  He was also a little grandiose.  As payment for his aid to the Rebellion, Booster demanded his own personal Star Destroyer, which he later turned into a mobile casino and trade outpost (and secret Jedi refuge).  A guy that eccentric could be a ton of fun to portray, and to watch.

Evangeline Lilly as Mara Jade Skywalker
Evangeline Lilly
Evangeline Lilly always seemed perfectly at home in the role of Kate, a woman with a very checkered past who tries to do the right thing when such an opportunity presents itself.  She was a physical actress, and held her own opposite any of her male co-stars, whether they were adversaries or love interests.  Basically, there’s no doubting her ability to play an active, self-sufficient, layered female lead.  That pretty much defines Mara Jade, the woman who first sets out to kill Luke Skywalker and later winds up marrying him.  Another creation of Timothy Zahn’s (noticing a trend?), Mara spends years developing a relationship with Luke that is all at once antagonistic, instructive, challenging, and supportive.  It was only fitting that Zahn was the one who got to finally bring the two together, after putting them through the ringer in his Hand of Thrawn series.  Subsequent authors have taken the couple to new and exciting stages of life in the New Jedi Order series and beyond.  There’s an infinite amount of Mara material to mine for a movie.  Of course, it might be tough to do, since her presence necessitates the return of Luke, Han, and Leia.  Think Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher are up to it?

Big Three

I think they still got it.

~ T

On Stage: Three Nights of Theater

With my free time going quickly, I got to do something I’d come to miss during the fall semester.  I went to the theater!  In the course of five nights, I saw three plays, each of them featuring favorite actors of mine.  There were hits, and there were misses.  Read on, but beware some spoilers!

Golden Boy

Last Friday I saw Golden Boy, a Clifford Odets play about an Italian immigrant’s son who inhabits every creative person’s struggle: the battle between art and commerce.  A skilled violinist, Joe Bonaparte (played by Seth Numrich) doesn’t believe that music can be his living.  He’s determined to prove himself as an independent American success, and sees his chance in the world of boxing.  As his natural talent develops, plucky Joe turns into something else entirely, alienating his family, friends, and love interest in his violent pursuit of validation.

If this sounds like your typical early 20th century American drama, that’s because it is.  Nothing about the 75-year-old Golden Boy is terribly surprising.  Fortunately, its masterful execution saves it from being a bore.  Numrich is fine as the angry Joe, though by halfway through the second of the show’s three acts, you might have a hard time feeling any sympathy for him.  The trio of father figures he alienates are all expertly played: Danny Mastrogiorgio as his manager, Tom; Danny Burstein as his trainer, Tokio; and Tony Shalhoub as his actual father.  Shalhoub stands out, physically and verbally inhabiting the older Mr. Bonaparte so completely that perhaps he’s the reason why I was so eager for Joe’s inevitable fall from grace.  How could you be so mean to that sweet old man?

Shalhoub and Numrich in "Golden Boy"
Tony Shalhoub and Seth Numrich in “Golden Boy”

Yvonne Strahovski plays Joe’s love interest Lorna, doing a textbook Depression Era New York moll.  Joe’s brother-in-law Siggie, played by Michael Aranov, was one of the few characters I wished we’d seen a little more of, even if he was aping Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire at times.  Anthony Crivello heaped an extra layer of sleaze on his menacing promoter character, Eddie Fuseli, but his exaggerated old country accent kept him from being all that threatening in my eyes.

The action is all meticulously staged by director Bartlet Sher.  For a show concerned with the sport of boxing, Sher seems to have paid special attention to how the characters use their hands outside the ring.  Delicate touches prove just as powerful as right hooks.

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a Sher show where he wasn’t paired with an amazing design team.  Golden Boy is no different.  The sets by Michael Yeargan, lighting by Donald Holder, and costumes by Catherine Zuber are all absolutely top-notch.  Yeargan’s sets, in particular, take the surprisingly large dimensions of the Belasco Theater and create a much more intimate feeling, whether the action be in the crowded Bonaparte home or a stuffy gymnasium.

Golden Boy closes on January 20.

The Piano Lesson

On Tuesday I saw The Piano Lesson at the Signature Theater.  Part of August Wilson’s cycle of plays about the African-American experience in 20th century America, The Piano Lesson concerns a brother and sister, Boy Willie and Berniece, and the fate of their most treasured family heirloom: a one-of-a-kind upright piano that is literally filled with their family history.  Boy Willie wants to sell it and use the profit to buy land in the south.  Berniece can’t bring herself to part with the piano, yet neither can she open the lid and tickle the ivories.  It may not sound like the most explosive conflict, but it serves as a solid foundation for some really strong drama about family, identity, grief, and forgiveness.

The Piano Lesson featured solid performances all around.  Brandon Dirden is perfectly sly, charming, and dangerous as the scheming Boy Willie.  His brother, Jason Dirden, plays Boy Willie’s would-be accomplice, Lymon, with an appropriate man-child’s innocence.  Eric Lenox Abrams plays Avery, the humble local preacher with an eye on Berniece,  with kindness and sincerity.  Playing the object of his affection is Rosyln Ruff, who was completely captivating.  She fills Berniece with all the bluster, fragility, pride, and fear the role requires, playing this titanic role effortlessly.  Chuck Cooper plays Wining Boy, Willie and Berniece’s mischievous uncle.  His antics amuse, but there’s an underlying sadness there that does not go unnoticed–even when he performs on the titular piano, letting loose with his brassy, bluesy voice.  The role of Doaker, the more responsible uncle, is usually played by James A. Williams, but at the performance I attended, Keith Randolph Smith was on.  He may have tripped over a line here or there, but he was otherwise perfect as the wise but weary patriarch of this family.

Jason Dirden and Roslyn Ruff in "The Piano Lesson"
Jason Dirden and Roslyn Ruff in “The Piano Lesson”

The show is smartly directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and impressively designed by set creator Michael Carnahan, costumer Karen Perry, and lighting artist Rui Rita.  My only complaints with the play come from the text itself.  August Wilson was an extremely talented writer, but he was not a diligent editor.  Coming in at just over three hours, The Piano Lesson could easily be forty minutes shorter and lose none of its impact.  Portions of dialogue are redundant, as if Wilson didn’t trust the audience to remember the fairly simple motivations of his main characters.  The bigger problem I had with the play wouldn’t be as easy to fix.  Spirituality is a constant in all of Wilson’s works.  It’s a theme present throughout The Piano Lesson, but at practically subliminal levels–until the ending.  I really don’t know how anyone could have seen that coming.  I don’t want to give anything anyway, but let’s just say that the play’s climactic scene could have been called  The Poltergeist Lesson.

The Piano Lesson closes January 20.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

My last theater adventure of the month was to see the latest revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the Tennessee Williams classic that many a star has taken their turn in before–Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, and Kathleen Turner, to name a few.  The current production, which just opened last night, is not short on star power either, headlined as it is by Scarlett Johansson.  She plays the saucy Maggie, wife of broken-down former golden boy Brick (Benjamin Walker, AKA Meryl Streep’s son-in-law), who tries to get to the root of her husband’s gloom during a weekend celebration for Brick’s father (the unstoppable Ciaran Hinds).

I have to say that while Cat on a Hot Tin Roof wasn’t the most recently written of the plays I saw this week, it managed to feel the oldest.  The main drama of the play concerns Brick’s friendship with an old teammate named Skipper, a relationship that is only discussed in euphemism and cautious allusion.  Perhaps in 1955 this kind of thing would have scandalized an audience, but in 2013 the ruckus raised by Maggie, Brick, and Big Daddy over what did or did not exist with Skipper seemed peculiarly quaint.  As such, the second conflict of the piece–that being, what will happen to Big Daddy’s heirs when he dies–seems to lack the attention it deserves.  Brick and Maggie won’t see a cent of inheritance if they remain childless–a fate that we are to assume is all but guaranteed, given what’s so heavily implied.  Nevertheless, Maggie begs Brick to put up a fight against his brother, Gooper, and Gooper’s two-faced wife, Mae.  I thought the couples’ confrontation in the third act was the biggest pay-off of the evening, but something tells me Williams never intended it to be.  

Benjamin Walker and Scarlett Johansson in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"
Benjamin Walker and Scarlett Johansson in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof gets revived as often as it does because it’s a well-known play, and it can be an excellent star vehicle.  That being said, even though this was a sturdy production, few members of the cast were truly exceptional in my eyes.  Johansson was fine as Maggie, but did nothing to make her take on the role unique.  In fact, sometimes she even sounded like Elizabeth Taylor (albeit from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for whatever that’s worth).  Walker might have given a better performance if he ever picked his head up.  He’s so dependent on the body language of his character that it distracts from his performance.

The two stand-outs for me were Ciaran Hinds as Big Daddy and Emily Bergl as Mae.  Hinds’s Big Daddy is a monster unchained, a man who has decided that instead of cowering in the face of death, he is going to ruthlessly settle all accounts before his time is up.  He’s powerful, threatening, lecherous, and horrible–and impossible to take your eyes off of.  Bergl’s Mae is the kind of passive-aggressive, perfectionist PTA mother that’s now practically an archetype of suburban satire, but Williams gives the character an insatiable, sinister greed that makes her even more monstrous.

Director Rob Ashford usually works on musicals, but he does a nice job here with his first straight play, even if the set by Christopher Oram seemed to get in the way.  The oversized balcony doors from Brick and Maggie’s guest room, and the expansive playing space of that chamber itself, lead to some crowded blocking and empty space, respectively.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is running through March 30.

Giddy Up!

Happy New Year, readers!  The holidays are over, we’ve moved into a triskaidekaphobe’s nightmare, and the adventures have already begun!

With three whole weeks before my graduate courses start up again, I intend to cram in as much adventuring as possible.  So when my good friend Jill announced that she had something special planned for her birthday, I was all ears.   In a stroke of utter genius, Jill invited me and a few other notables to join her at Madison Square Garden to observe something we had never before seen: professional bull riding.

Yes, that’s right.  A rodeo in midtown Manhattan.  And it was a sight to see.

For the unfamiliar–and I’ll go out on a limb and assume that most of you are, when it comes to this topic–the Professional Bull Riding circuit is a multi-million dollar enterprise, traveling the nation, sponsored by organizations and products I’d never heard of and never knew I needed.  It features competitors from across the world, risking life and limb   for a substantial cash prize.  The rules of the competition are simple.  A rider sits on the back of a bull.  He holds on with just one hand.  The bull is loosed from its pen, and the rider must stay on for eight seconds.  Should he last that long, he is then scored, presumably on his form and general handling of the animal.  I do not believe any points are awarded for the dismount.  This is not the Olympic floor routine, after all.  More likely, bonus points are given for riders not shitting themselves in terror.

Because while this might sound just like your last time out at Johnny Utah’s, make no mistake: these animals are dangerous.  Personally, I vastly underestimated the size of them.  These riders were not jockey-sized, and they were dwarfed by their rowdy mounts.  Three of them could have comfortably sat across the back of one of these behemoths.  And while they settled down quickly and made orderly exits in the direction of the nearest hay bale, these creatures did not enjoy having a person on their backs one bit.  Eight seconds might not seem like much, but when you have a metric ton of filet mignon doing its damnedest to turn you into ground chuck, I imagine time stretches on infinitely.

J. B. Mauney

As fascinating as the action in the pen was, I admit that I was really attending to people-watch.  I had hoped that the world’s most famous arena would be filled with genuine cowpokes and country gals; but with the exception of the woman seated in front of me whose favored means of conveyance was, I imagine, a Wal-Mart shopping cart scooter, it seemed to be an audience of mostly bewildered urban twentysomethings like myself.  Our group was in the spirit of things, wearing assorted patterns of plaid or flannel.  There was a rowdy group a few rows above us who came dressed as if they had run right in from the streets of Pamplona.  And there was this dude across the aisle, who would later attempt to drink a bear out of the brim of his hat.  It didn’t go so well.


The MVP of the night was our MC, a legitimate rodeo clown.  He kept the crowd entertained while the bulls were wrangled, with contests, give-aways, and some very impressive dancing.  I realized that he likely stays as limber as he is because he was occasionally on the ground with the bulls–and the animals thought his jokes about city livin’ were just as lame as we did.

Two of these three vehicles were up for grabs.  I'll let you decide which ones.
Two of these three vehicles were up for grabs, but I won’t tell you which ones.

While the bull riding proved to be just the beginning of a long night of celebrating another year of Jill, it was definitely the highlight.  We had barely been in our seats ten minutes before it was unanimously decided that we would have to get tickets for next year.  Twelve months should give me enough time to melt down all the gold and silver I have and turn it into a belt buckle that requires its own zip code.

~ T

Out at Third

Sports fans have no shortage of viewing choices in the lean months of winter.  The NFL is racing towards play-offs, the college football bowl games all follow the holidays, and NBA basketball is going strong.  As much as I enjoy running the family football pool and waiting each morning for Blake Griffin highlights, none of it fills the void left by baseball.  Sure, 162 games can take up the better part of the calendar year; but these cold, dark months without baseball are a hard slog.  So when free agency begins and the powers convene, I pay close attention.  This year, my friends, I am not happy.

Earlier this month, my friend Alex Rodriguez announced that he would have hip surgery during the off-season, his second such operation in four years.  The surgery will keep him off the field for most of the first half of the coming 2013 Yankee season.  You can imagine my disappointment.


I was willing to let it go, wish my favorite Yankee well in his recovery, and take solace in the fact that Davey Wright will still be on the hot corner in Queens for years to come.  But then…then I started hearing rumors.  Vicious rumors.  Hateful, vile rumors.  Rumors about how Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, planned to fill A-Rod’s spot.  Rumors that said that a certain former Red Sox player, the one and only Kevin Youkilis, would be signed to play third based in the Bronx.  And then, in a true sign of the impending Mayan apocalypse, those rumors were confirmed.  My initial, gut reaction was perhaps a bit over the top (jump to 0:23):

But on further reflection, and with the aid of statistical research, it seems my Laura Roslin rantings were not unfounded.  In the 2012 season, Youkilis played 30 more games than A-Rod, but had a much lower batting average.  Alex’s 40 stints as DH don’t offer much evidence of statistical inflation, as that change in the roster only accorded him 25 more at-bats than Youkilis had.  For argument’s sake, that’s really only about six game’s worth of plate appearances.  The two had almost the same number of RBIs and homers (point, A-Rod), but almost the same number of strike-outs, as well (point, Youkilis).  A-Rod had the stronger on-base and slugging percentages, though.  In the field, Youkilis had put-outs in roughly half his starts, while Alex was making outs almost three-quarters of the time.  However, Youkilis had far more assists, and Alex managed to make almost as many errors as Youkilis in much less game time.

alexWhat my amateur analysis here shows is not that Alex had a great year, but that Youkilis’s was not much better.  That’s where my frustration as a Yankee fan comes from.  If they want to replace Alex for the first half, fine; but why do it with someone who only exceeds his abilities in a few, very limited ways?  Even more puzzling, why do it with someone who is only three years younger who has his own history of injuries?  This is another sign of the Yankees’ endemic aversion to taking chances with new talent.  They keep letting Andy Pettitte back in the clubhouse every time he gets bored sitting home in Texas.  I hear they’ve painted a mobility scooter in pinstripes so Mariano Rivera can make it from the bullpen to the mound in style.  This is a career pitcher who ruined his throwing arm shagging fly balls at batting practice!  Do any of the Steinbrenners know a sign from the gods when they see one?  So now that Alex is showing his age, why isn’t the job being handed to Eduardo Nunez, age 25, who had a better batting average than Alex and made six outs and twelve assists in the nine games he spent at third last year?  Why is Ramiro Pena, a utility infielder ten years Alex’s junior who had a great 2011 season, not even securely on the Yankee roster?

Finally, on a much more visceral level, how in the great wide fucking world do Brian Cashman and the Steinbrenners expect me, a loyal and vocal Yankee fan, to root for Kevin Fucking Youkilis, poster hick of the Red Sox and the embodiment of sloppy, white trash Boston fandom?  And how dare they hire him to replace my boy!  The Yankees are the clean-cut matinée idols of Major League Baseball.  The Red Sox, since the time of Manny Ramirez, look about as hygienic as your average TLC reality show family.  Nowhere is this difference more obvious than it is now at third base.  Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez is genetic Dominican perfection.  Kevin Youkilis looks like he should be driving a garbage truck.

Alex Youk

But there is no greater aesthetic crime than when Kevin Youkilis steps to the plate.  High holy fuck, you guys, Kevin Youkilis has the most ridiculous batting stance in the history of baseball!  I refuse to believe that any hitting coach has ever actually sanctioned this stance.  I stopped playing baseball when I was 11, and even I can tell you that everything about this is wrong, wrong, wrong.

He probably flied out on that hit, too.

The haters can crow all they want.  “A-Rod’s a prima donna,” “He doesn’t have his head in the game,” “He choked in the post-season.”  Yes, he did; but unlike Kevin Youkilis, Alex has been to the post-season every year since 2009.  Coincidentally, that was the last time Kevin Youkilis ever reached the play-offs.

So Mr. Cashman, Hal and Hank, Joe Girardi, and yes, you, Kevin Youkilis–I ask that you listen closely.  I will accept this trade on one condition: before the first day of spring training, I get to shave off Kevin Youkilis’s beard.  And I get to do it with half of a rusty pair of scissors that I find in an abandoned Hoboken warehouse.  Blindfolded.

~ T