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The M& M Boys -- Metheny and Morris -- Hit a Few Out of the Park

By Terry Teachout
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 1, 2005

NEW YORK Pat Metheny's "The Way Up," released on CD earlier this year by Nonesuch, is a 75-minute-long composition by the fusion guitarist and his keyboard-playing collaborator Lyle Mays, written not for a symphony orchestra but for the scarcely less symphonic Pat Metheny Group, an electrified chamber ensemble capable of filling the biggest concert halls with iridescent clouds of sound. Unsatisfied with merely recording so ambitious a piece, Metheny and his colleagues have taken to the road to play "The Way Up" all around the world, and in April they brought it to the Beacon Theater, a rock-and-roll palace on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that is conveniently located six blocks from my front door.

I'm a Metheny fan from way back, but even so, I wondered whether so elaborately layered a composition could be brought off in live performance. Boy, was I wrong. The Metheny Group didn't just play it -- they nailed it to the wall, disentangling its sonic complexities with awe-inspiring skill and opening it up for improvised solos without upsetting the carefully balanced four-part structure. As if that weren't enough, they then offered as an "encore" a 1 1/2 -hour greatest-hits set played with enough energy to propel a 747 halfway to Mars. That's a whole lot of music (especially given the fact that Metheny doesn't believe in intermissions), but when it was all over I was on my feet, yelling my head off like a starry-eyed teenager.

The Mark Morris Dance Group, another ensemble dedicated to the proposition that more is more, brought a five-part mixed bill to the BAM Opera House last week. On tap were "Rhymes With Silver," a festive divertissement set to the exotically percussive music of Lou Harrison; "Somebody's Coming to See Me Tonight," a poignant suite of dances set to the songs of Stephen Foster; "From Old Seville" and "Silhouettes," a droll pair of miniatures; and a new piece called "Rock of Ages" in which four people meet onstage to enact a haunting, all but inscrutable ritual that is impossible to describe, or to forget.

Accompanied by the slow movement of Schubert's E-flat Piano Trio, "Rock of Ages" is one of those deceptively simple-looking Morris dances whose unforced, understated beauty leaves you in breathless wonder when the curtain falls. The word "masterpiece" has long since been devalued to the point of meaninglessness by overuse, but if "Rock of Ages" isn't one, there's no such thing.

John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt," which was the talk of off-Broadway late last year, has now transferred (as nobody doubted it would) to the Great White Way. In a lucky stroke of timing, it made the jump a week before winning the Pulitzer Prize for best play of the year, an honor with which I wholeheartedly concur. Now ensconced in the Walter Kerr Theatre, it's none the worse for the move from the Manhattan Theatre Club's smaller Stage I. Brian F. O'Byrne and Cherry Jones, who play a priest suspected of molesting a child and the hard-bitten nun who means to run him out of town on a rail, evidence or no evidence, have turned up the volume just a teeny bit, but their gripping performances have lost nothing in subtlety. While it was wonderful to see "Doubt" in a tiny theater, it's still the same tough-minded, utterly compelling play that knocked me down last November. I can't recommend it too strongly, especially since it's not selling out.

Also back in town in April was "Sides: The Fear Is Real," a head-bangingly funny evening of comic sketches about bad auditions, by which I mean go-home-and-slit-your-wrists bad. It's written and performed by Mr. Miyagi's Theatre Company, a sextet of young Asian American actors who've seen it all and lived -- barely -- to tell their hair-raising tales of stage fright, memory lapses, stupid scripts, half-witted casting directors and the dangers of uncontrolled perspiration. I praised "Sides" to the skies in this space when it played the New York International Fringe Festival two years ago, and was overjoyed when P.S. 122 gave it a month-long off-Broadway run.

Tonight's the last performance, alas, but don't worry if you're not expecting to be in Lower Manhattan this evening. I'll be surprised if "Sides" doesn't turn up in a larger house sooner or later -- probably sooner. It's that good, and then some.

Even if you haven't been to New York lately, it's more than possible that you saw PBS's live telecast of Lincoln Center's semi-staged concert version of Stephen Sondheim's "Passion," in which Patti LuPone did herself proud as Fosca, a sickly, unattractive woman half in love with death and wholly in love with a handsome soldier (Michael Cerveris), for whom she longs so desperately that she's more than willing to die for him. I was lucky enough to be at the Rose Theater for one of the three performances (I saw it the night before the "Live From Lincoln Center" telecast), and I was thrilled beyond words. Not even in "Sweeney Todd" has Sondheim more closely approached the sustained intensity of full-scale opera than in "Passion," and this production, gracefully staged by Lonny Price, made clear the true stature of a much-maligned show that at last appears to be coming into its own.

For pure charm, it'd be hard to top the Milton Avery exhibition on display through May 27 at the main branch of the New York Public Library, a pleasingly compact affair that goes by the mile-long name of "The Flying Pig and Other Winged Creatures: An Exhibition of the Artist's Illustrations and Prints." Fifty-nine years ago, Avery accepted an invitation to illustrate a children's book written by a friend and called "The Flying Pig." The book was scrapped on account of excessive expense (to reproduce Avery's paintings in color would have cost too much in the days of post-World War II inflation), and this is the first time the illustrations have been shown in public. Not surprisingly, they're just as adorable as you'd expect -- fancifully composed and joyously colored, very much in the Avery manner. Hung alongside them are a dozen of the artist's finest drypoints and woodcuts, including "Self-Portrait," "March at a Table," "Night Nude" and "Dancer." If you've never seen any of Avery's prints, this is an excellent place to start.

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