It's profoundly unsettling for a Manhattanite to be following the news these days. I've found it all but impossible to tear myself away from the televised scenes of mounting chaos in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast, though I did take a quick look the other day at the first "Second City" column I filed after 9/11. It started like this:
"We're all right, thanks. It took a week or two for us to pull ourselves together, but New Yorkers have finally started to emerge from their holes, looking for all that art offers in times of trial: inspiration, diversion, catharsis, escape." It will take a lot longer for the victims of Hurricane Katrina to reconstitute their lives, and longer still, I fear, for them to regain access to the solace of art.
My heart goes out to them all.
In the meantime, those of us watching and grieving from afar are also feeling the need for consolation. I haven't been to a performance of any kind in a week, but as I look back on what I saw and heard in the first three weeks of August, I find those still-fresh memories of beauty and pleasure to be all the more piercing in light of what has come since then.
Without doubt, the most moving thing I saw in August was the Irish Repertory Theatre's unforgettable revival of "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" Brian Friel's 1964 play, whose Broadway premiere catapulted him to fame, is now acknowledged as a classic, but even a classic can't perform itself, and so much thanks is owed to the Irish Rep for staging it in so warm and immediate a way. It's the story of Gar O'Donnell, a bright young fellow on the eve of emigrating from Ireland to the United States, and his aged, uncommunicative father, who long ago lost the power to talk to his son in anything other than cliches. In a stroke of genius that in retrospect -- but only that -- seems inevitable, Friel split Gar into two characters, his real-life self and the witty, hectoring alter ego who follows him around the stage, giving voice to his hopes, fears and frustrations.
Impeccably directed and cast by Ciaran O'Reilly, the company's co-founder and producing director, this revival is a miraculously true-to-life realization of Friel's loving but clear-eyed portrait of life in an Irish village. Michael FitzGerald and James Kennedy couldn't be better as the two Gars, and Edwin C. Owens's performance as Gar's father is compelling in its deceptively stolid simplicity. There isn't much to the tiny, L-shaped theater where the Irish Rep performs, but you don't need a whole lot of elbow room to make theatrical magic, and this production is as magical as it gets. Thanks to an avalanche of favorable reviews, the run of "Philadelphia, Here I Come!" has been extended to Sept. 25, giving adventurous Washingtonians a bit more time to come up to Second City and see for themselves.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the other plays I saw last month, and I certainly don't have a bad word to say about the cast of Primary Stages' production of Terrence McNally's "Dedication or the Stuff of Dreams," now playing at 59E59. The play itself is a clever mess, a now-plausible, now-fanciful look at the lonely, unfulfilled proprietors of a small-town children's theater company, but Nathan Lane, Alison Fraser and the amazing Marian Seldes make far more out of McNally's confused script than he had any right to expect. Lane will soon be going into rehearsals for "The Odd Couple," but Seldes and Fraser are staying with the show, and it's worth seeing for them alone.
Not so the Public Theater's Central Park revival of "Two Gentlemen of Verona," the 1971 Galt MacDermot-John Guare musical-comedy version of Shakespeare's play, whose lively staging by Kathleen Marshall was unable to paper over the thinness of MacDermot's rock-and-water score. As for "Lennon," it's still running, and you won't have any trouble getting tickets. Enough said?
Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival has in recent years been presenting "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," Mark Morris's great full-evening dance to an oratorio by Handel, on a semi-regular basis.
This was Morris's year to return to the festival, and so his company set up shop in Lincoln Center's New York State Theatre for three performances, accompanied to nothing short of brilliant effect by Nicholas McGegan, the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the Riverside Choral Society Chamber Singers. The singing and playing were so fine that you could have closed your eyes and had a good time, but that, needless to say, would have defeated the whole purpose of the evening. I've seen "L'Allegro" a half-dozen times over the years, and I find more in it with each viewing. It is, as I once wrote, a whole world of dance in a single evening, and the Mark Morris Dance Group members perform it as if it were custom-made for them (as, of course, it was). Would that they brought it to New York every season, preferably for a couple of weeks!
I didn't hear much jazz in August, but I did make my way to the Jazz Standard for a performance by a 10-piece band led by the alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, whose long career boxes the compass of modern jazz. His earliest recordings, made in the late '40s and early '50s, were with Claude Thornhill, Lennie Tristano, the legendary Miles Davis "Birth of the Cool" nonet and Stan Kenton's "New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm" big band. It's amazing that he's still at it, but I regret to say that he wasn't playing very well when I heard him the other night. It didn't help that his colleagues (among them such heavy-hitting young guns as the avant-garde guitarist Ben Monder) were conspicuously underrehearsed, or that the arrangements they played were uninspired. Konitz himself has lost the bright edge of his youthful tone, trading it for a slack, flabby sound that I suspect would be all but unrecognizable to those who know him only from the cool-jazz recordings of his salad days. Maybe I caught him on a bad night.