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May 10, 2009

Coward, She Played

This entry isn't really about much, except what fun it was to go to New York--after much too long away--and see a living legend perform in a play by a not-too-long-deceased legend. (Noel Coward has been gone since 1973, but since I was old enough then to know who he was and why he was famous--and even remember seeing him in such throwaway movies as "Surprise Package" and the original "Italian Job"--it doesn't seem that long to me.)

It's no news to report that Angela Lansbury--after 83 years on this planet, nearly all of which have been spent in the theater--has lost none of her charisma or her comic timing. (The goofy, ingratiating grin she gives Jayne Atkinson, in admitting she has no idea how to undo the spell she cast, is something glorious and unique to Angela Lansbury.) It is delightful and heartening, however, to see that as Madame Arcati in "Blithe Spirit," she can still move across a stage as gracefully as she did 30 years ago in "Sweeney Todd." I remember John Gielgud on "The Dick Cavett Show," talking about his great-aunt Ellen Terry, moving paintully toward the stage bent over a cane, casting off the years and dancing a merry jig as soon as she stepped on the boards. I have no knowledge of Miss Lansbury's current offstage physical condition; all I can say is, onstage for "Blithe Spirit," she never seemed better. It is such a pleasure to review Miss Lansbury's career--from the saucy wench in "Gaslight" to the dragon mom of "The Manchurian Candidate," the unparalled string of Broadway triumphs including "Mame" and "Sweeney Todd," and the utter charm of "Murder, She Wrote," in which she became everybody's favorite companion for Sunday tea. To all those roles she has brought elegance, technical brilliance, and an astonishing emotional range. It is impossible to think of a role Miss Lansbury has played in which she didn't seem exactly right--quite a tribute, when you consider the length of her career and the extraordinary variety of the role she's played. In roles that call for it, she can freeze your gizzards; but it is the roles of warmth and eccentric humor--such as Madame Arcati--that have made her beloved, and that blessedly seem like the real woman. By all reports, she is universally beloved by her colleagues, and her infrequent interviews reveal a woman of great warmth and kindness. That makes her career that much more pleasant to contemplate--that good things, after all, DO happen to good people.

Of course Angela Lansbury isn't the whole show in "Blithe Spirit." Rupert Everett is a perfect Cowardesque cad, Jayne Atkinson is delightfully shockable, and Christine Ebersole is an enchanting champagne ditz. (Kudos also should go to Susan Louise O'Connor, hilariously lovable as the hapless maid Edith.) But when Miss Lansbury made her entrance, there was no question from the audience's reaction whom they had come to see. May we all have more opportunities to do so.

May 31, 2009

He Who Is Tired of London...

Here's another blog entry that isn't about much except a trip to a great city--in this case, London, where I visited my friends Jon Gardner and Kristen Hallam over a long Memorial Day weekend (or, if you're English, a long bank holiday weekend). This was the first time I ever stayed in someone's home in London, as opposed to a hotel, and it was revelatory to be in the company of people who know certain things that tourists don't--for example, the bus routes. From the top of an enclosed double-decker bus--as often as not from the panoramic seat at the front windshield--I got to see streets and sights that most visitors never experience, from Southwark to Highgate. Of course it wouldn't have been London if something didn't go wrong, this time as typically with the plumbing--the water heater went out the second day of my visit, and because of the bank holiday didn't get repaired until the day I left. But we made do and kept a stiff upper lip. A bit of the old Dunkirk spirit, what.

In any case, a performance of "All's Well That Ends Well" at the Olivier Theatre was a brilliant reminder (if reminder I needed) that British theater is second to none. It is always heartening to see the magical stagecraft that can be created (as in this production) by, say, a hung bedsheet and the right lighting. Except for Clare Higgins and Janet Henfrey, no member of the cast was previously familiar to me, yet all of them deserved the highest compliment I can pay: none can be singled out, they were all so wonderful.

This visit also allows me to observe that London, despite its reputation for--well--English cooking, may be the best restaurant city in the world, for both the variety and quality of its offerings. Again, it helps to have friends who know the good places tourists never hear about. The English have learned to be multicultural in their food--the proximity of a certain country just across the Channel is evident, but countries further south and to the north, east and west of England also make their presences felt. Memories of great dishes still come back to thrill my gluttonous (and glutinous) heart: the rich, satiny foie gras de canard at Comptoir Gascon near the Smithfield market; the duck rillettes at La Cave, in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral, and again at Comptoir Gascon; the tarte Tatin, good as in Paris, at Le Cafe Quotiden in the South Bank complex; the astonishing profusion of superb tapas--including hanger steak, cod fritters, garlic mushrooms, and churros with chocoate--at Pinchito between the Barbican and Old Street tube stations; the luscious profusion of Brazilian barbecued meats at Rodizio Rico in Islington; the raspberry-vanilla ice cream, served in a chocolate-dipped cone with a chocoate stick, at a Thornton's store near St. Paul's Cathedral; the carnitas burritos served from a van near Jon and Kristen's apartment, amid a street fair featuring every conceivable type of national cuisine. At the Borough Market near Southwark Cathedral I had a venison burger with onion, lettuce and Cumberland sauce and bought marvelous aged Pecorino cheese and an unbelievable chicken liver pate with truffles, while wondering around an incredible profusion of meats, cheeses, vegetables, fruits, breads, sweets, wines. (Kristen chose cranberry sauce for her venison burger, while Jon opted for the Thai green curry with chicken and mussels.) And beer, glorious beer, both English and Belgian, served at pubs including the Spaniards Inn in Hampstead, the Flask in Highgate and the Lowlander near Covent Garden.

There was much, much more, but I will conclude by expanding on the sentiments of Dr. Johnson: He who is tired of London has rocks in his heads and bats in his belfry. His elevator does not go to the top floor, the knives in his drawer need sharpening, he is a sandwich short of a picnic and a spark plug short of a tuneup. Cold showers and heating water on the stove for baths notwithstanding.

About May 2009

This page contains all entries posted to MDM in May 2009. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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