Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Fall of Bedford Falls

A mild wind, chill around the edges, blew alongside the structure at 221 West 57th Street, beneath those big metal rods that hold up buildings that await demolition. And with that wind, papers blew, used cups and candy wrappers, notes that people had written each other when people still wrote on paper instead of texting, receipts and unpaid bills part of the blowy debris. A black man, I think I am still allowed to call him, listlessly swept up some of the mess. I asked him what had been there, and he said ‘The Hard Rock CafĂ©.’ The whole scene, dreary as it was, viewed after coming from a performance of David Mamet’s ‘’Oleanna”, seemed particularly desolate, like the part of “It’s a Wonderful Life” when the angel showed Jimmy Stewart what it would be like if he’d never been born. I know there are many who regard that movie as mawkish, but I believe Frank Capra represented what was uplifting in the American spirit, and he is gone gone gone, as is the country he loved, and what we are become is Pottersville.
You can take the temperature of the country by what is happening on Broadway, although the Sarah Palin part of it, the “real America” would insist on opting out, if they knew what opting was. The play I saw this afternoon was an agony, unpleasant to begin with because that was David Mamet then, (I look forward to seeing where he is now, which is coming any day) and as I remember Madonna was in it, so it must have caused quite a stir at the time, the student bitch with her own feminist agenda, looking to bring down a harried professor with the charge of sexual harassment. Today’s matinee was particularly uncomfortable, because everybody knows it’s closing early, the cast in pain because they have to soldier on, the audience, fractionally filled, probably mostly paper, resistant to what is for openers a difficult and contentious play, with its unlikable non-heroine(Julia Stiles) triumphing over the good guy(Bill Pullman.) I have a personal soft spot for Mr. Pullman because we were once in the lost luggage department of an airline at the same time, and children were climbing on him, and I saw the decent human being he was managing to stay in spite of being a successful new young actor in movies. To have suffered through the audience restlessness (and in a few cases, leaving)must have been as discomfiting as not knowing where your bags had been sent by mistake or if you would ever get them back, and there were no tiny tots clambering up his legs to reassure him that life would go on. The whole experience was shadowed even grayer by today’s piece in The New York Times about what’s working(Wicked, over the roof—go know, somebody tell me why) and what’s struggling(Finian’s Rainbow, the most joyful, witty score, lyrics especially, by my once mentor and wonderful friend, Yip Harburg, the true poet among songwriters) and what I know to be closing, Superior Donuts, the best play I have seen on Broadway in a long time.
It is all about more than Broadway, and I think I know why. Everybody is afraid, whether or not they admit it. No one knows where we are going, or if, and rather than examine that scary scenario, they want to be entertained. No thought, please, we’re tourists. Stores are empty, or closing, except for Apple, where a constant stream of customers,15,000 a day on Fifth Avenue (and there’s a new one where Circuit City went out of business on Upper Broadway) stand on line to buy pricey Ipod Nanos(that’ll keep you from thinking) or Iphones, so they can twitter what they are doing to keep themselves mindless, which is nothing.
I would venture, as a retired optimist, that what we need is Jimmy Stewart, except I think we had him for a few months before reality started bringing him down. (You may remember Mr. Smith goes to Washington, the idealist who becomes a senator, and then…) So the wind blows, hauntingly, beside deserted cafes where once were noisy, spendthrift revelers. Good God, the evil banker triumphed.