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Thursday, April 9, 2020


Aside from accusations of anti-Semitism, Philip Roth has also been accused of misogyny.  Google him on these topics; you'll find a long list of critics accusing him, if not of one, then the other of these repulsive characteristics. I've extrapolated his description of Evelyn Finkel from The Plot Against America.  

The following is all the writer/director and actor had to go on:  

 "Alvin was the renegade on my father's side, Evelyn was the maverick on my mother's, a substitute elementary school teacher in the Newark system who'd been active several years earlier in founding the left-wing, largely Jewish Newark Teachers Union, whose few hundred members were competing with a more staid, apolitical teachers' association to negotiate contracts with the city.  Evelyn was just thirty in 1941, and until two years before, when my maternal grandmother died of heart failure after a decade as a coronary invalid, it was Evelyn who'd cared for her in the tiny top-floor apartment ...and when Evelyn went to New York to see a play with her intellectual friends on a Saturday night...Many nights Aunt Evelyn never made it home from New York - even when she'd planned to return before midnight...And then there were the afternoons Evelyn didn't get back until hours after school was over, because of a long-standing off-and-on love affair with a substitute teacher from North Newark, like Evelyn a forceful union advocate, and unlike Evelyn married, Italian and the parent of three children. --- Her large nose didn't prevent people from calling Aunt Evelyn "striking," and it was true, as my mother observed, that when tiny Evelyn walked into a room -- a vivacious brunette with a perfect, if miniaturized womanly silhouette, enormous dark eyes...crimson lipstick guaranteed to dazzle -- everyone turned to look, the women as well as the men.  Her hair was lacquered to a metallic luster...and when she went off to sub, she donned a brightly colored skirt with matching high-heeled shoes and a broad white belt and a semisheer, pastel-colored blouse.  My father considered her apparel in poor taste for a schoolteacher, and so did the principal at Hawthorne...my mother....was incapable of judging her sister's boldness harshly, even when Evelyn resigned from teaching, quit the union, and seemingly without a qualm, abandoned her political loyalties to work for Rabbi Bengelsdorf in Lindbergh's OAA.

It would be several months before it occurred to my parents that Aunt Evelyn was the rabbi's mistress and had been ever since he met her at a reception..."

These introductory scenes are what they came up with:

In a few pages Roth described a woman that any actor should be thrilled to create:  A bold, sexually active woman who's aware of her physical attributes, knows that men and women find her attractive, and dresses accordingly.  A maverick, independent, who manages to care for her ill mother, teach, organize a "left-wing" opposition teachers' union that might ostracize her or cause her to lose her job; who's interested in the theatre (BTW, I mentioned Clifford Odets in my first post on this character; she might very well have gone to a production of one of his plays at the Group Theatre!).  She took risks having affairs with colleagues, and had a "long-standing, off-and-on" love affair with a married "forceful union advocate".  Can't you just see this like-minded pair?  Sure, you might decide that he's "taking advantage," lying,  promising marriage; how's that for an original idea?  But couldn't you also justify, given the description, a woman who loves a man and allows him his freedom as she takes hers?  After all, the affair was "off-and-on".  And then!  Inexplicably, she quits her job, her "left-wing" labor ideals and "political loyalties" and takes up with a right-wing sixty-year-old rabbi from the segregationist South!  How delicious can you get?!  Maybe it was her Italian lover who sat there on the bed like a weepy weed when she called it quits!  Instead, "I finally have somebody," is the line written for her in the scene with her sister.  What does that reduce her to and how does it line up with Roth's description of Evelyn?

Did Ms. Ryder consider these discrepancies when she read the novel?  Clearly, the spine of Evelyn's actions in the arc of the drama is focused on the abandonment of one political point of view for its polar opposite.  What drives a person to do that?  Whenever it's observed, it's curiously mysterious except for obvious reasons like ambition or conformity or something -- Mussolini comes to mind.  But still...it's puzzling, isn't it?  What a splendidly complex person Evelyn is, what a gift Philip Roth gave some future actor lucky enough to bring her to life.   Misogynist?   Who's the misogynist in this scenario?

Tuesday, April 7, 2020


Please refer to interviews with Philip Roth on YouTube for more information on his approach to his work.  I've posted this one about another novel because it's short and gives us a glimpse into his writing process.  He wrote a page a day and often struggled with just one sentence.  Regardless of how long writers spend on the stories they create, once the actor is challenged to perform the character created by the writer, it's the actor's obligation to understand that they're collaborating with the writer; that they bring their life experience to the to the life experience of the writer and that the character on the page becomes the third entity between them in performance.  The challenge for the actor is to make each written word from the writer sacred in the process of building the portrait of the character. 

From the novel, THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA:   "It was work that identified and distinguished our neighbors for me far more than religion.  Nobody in the neighborhood had a beard or dressed in the antiquated Old World style or wore a skullcap either outdoors or in the houses I routinely floated through with my boyhood friends.  The adults were no longer observant in the outward, recognizable ways, if they were seriously observant at all, and aside from older shopkeepers like the tailor and the kosher butcher....hardly anyone in the vicinity spoke with an accent.  By 1940 Jewish parents and their children at the southwestern corner of New Jersey's largest city talked to one another in an American English that sounded more like the language spoken in Altoona or Binghamton than like the dialects famously spoken across the Hudson by our Jewish counterparts in the five boroughs."

What was the purpose of the following scene that depicts the family's observance of the Sabbath and explicitly indicates that it was observed every Friday night?  Aside from making Philip's lack of knowledge about the orthodox men who came to the door asking for donations nonsensical, it directly contradicted the novel's description of the family's secular lifestyle, and made Evelyn's remark to Rabbi Bengelsdorf (discussed in the Episode 1 post) puzzling regarding how non-observant her family was.  It may seem minor to some, but please note the facile decision to speak in a cliche semblance of a New York twang instead of the accent clearly defined by Roth.  One need only listen to his accent above, even after living many years in London, and notice that over a lifetime it remained the same -- in case one didn't know how American English was spoken in Altoona in 1940!  The accents in performance weren't consistent, but the affect on the creation of character resulted in cliches that often lead to caricatures, to stereotypes, particularly by the women.  Funny; from the beginning of his career,  Roth was often accused of being anti-Semitic; a "self-hating Jew."  I'm not an avid reader of Roth; I've read a few of his novels, some I enjoyed; others not so much even though I admired his talent.  It seemed to me that he created complex, neurotic men and women who were products of, and in conflict with, their social environment -- that is, their central conflict was with the society, the particular social context in which they lived.  If an adaptation of his work doesn't rigorously adhere to it, even down to the way his characters pronounce words, then it runs the risk of expressing the anti-Semitism of which Roth was so unfairly accused.

Did the cast notice omissions and contradictions in the script from the novel; details that were painstakingly crafted by Roth to depict the social environment?  Did they consider the result of omissions and contradictions that would affect their ability to create the characters in the novel?  If they did, what did they do about it?

Saturday, March 28, 2020


The slow dilution of the technique rigorously taught by the members of the Group Theatre has sadly most permeated, of all things, the work of many American actors so that only a few are either so talented that they practice it by instinct, or they have been correctly taught, and use the technique habitually, or a combination of both.  Yes, I'm repeating myself.

With the exception of the children, and through the second episode of The Plot Against America, the performance of John Turturro, the entire cast demonstrated that it doesn't know the difference between narrative and dramatic expression of a sentence.  None of them, through the second episode seemed to comprehend action, the choice of a verb for each sentence, the idea of which must begin with a thought.  The result of this error produced, for all of the occasional histrionics, indicated acting.

Ms. Ryder's performance was of particular interest to me because I've seen her perform excellently, especially approximately thirty years ago when she exhibited the innate talent we marvel at in children such as Azhy Robertson.  I recently discussed Scarlett Johansson's work as well in this regard.  Regardless of the measure of a child's talent, once they reach adulthood, I think it's imperative that they learn technique in order to understand what they intuited when they were children.  If Azhy Robertson will still want to be an actor past the age of eighteen (not before!), his work will only improve, deepen, if he learns how to read the notes and not rely on his ability to play by ear.

For a discussion of the following scene, let's go along with the series' apparent interpretation of the character, Evelyn Finkel, as a romantically needy spinster who is taken advantage of by a married man.  It's late afternoon in a hotel room, and they've just made love.  Once Evelyn realizes that Angelo didn't make the reservation for a steak dinner at _______(I didn't get the name of the restaurant), Ms. Ryder said, "I gave you the number," as if it were a statement of fact.  It's never a statement of fact!  The actor is free to choose an action, but an action it must be!  Accusatory?  Part of the rising action after this is the accusation that she "brought a suitcase."  Instinctively, Ms. Ryder was somewhat accusatory when she said this, but it wasn't specifically related to the progression/rising action of the scene, therefore nowhere near the importance it needed.  Ah, and then, Ms. Ryder was given sentences to say that were indeed a mouthful, and if the writers' attempt at those sentences was to channel Clifford Odets, I sympathize with Ms. Ryder, they fell vastly short:

                        "You see me, and all the blood leaves your head.
                          You get a taste of fruit and everything changes."

Then, "Angelo, I thought you knew the_______."  Sorry, I didn't understand the last word of that sentence, but whatever it was, it needed an action related to the rising action that began with the restaurant's phone number. 

Again, those first two sentences should not be said as statements of fact, and they are separate thoughts, neither of which Evelyn knew she was going to say, correct?  The first sentence/idea is that when he sees her, all the blood leaves his head and goes to his penis, right?  What verb would best convey the thought/action Evelyn might need to make him see what she sees?  "You get a taste of fruit and everything changes," needed to be the result of myriad images.

Then, the last beat after Angelo leaves; if the director encouraged a cliche action, please try to talk him out of it.  Do seek actions that aren't cliches such as looking down, hand to mouth as if about to cry; how about a simple direct gaze at the closed door, trying to understand the circumstances you find yourself in?  The actor needs to be cognizant of the character's journey of discovery that takes place in the arc of this scene.

The plot against American actors that encourages them to perform by instinct or to study absurd versions of technique none of which they know they can rely on, reduces them to manipulated ciphers who gaze with amazement at actors who defy such behavior and perform, risking all, in order to be able to marvel at human behavior.  In that vein, did Ms. Ryder ask the director/writer about a seeming contradiction that in the first episode Evelyn joins the family's Orthodox Sabbath observance, and in the second episode she tells Rabbi Bengelsdorf that her family isn't "particularly observant" when he asks her to be his assistant?  How is the actor supposed to develop the character, and play that scene with the rabbi?  Is Evelyn lying him?  A subject for future episodes of The Plot Against American Actors.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020


Josh Toussaint-Strauss of The Guardian made the following observation the other day about English dramas and today The Guardian commented on the absence of Afro-American characters in Westerns when history contradicts it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020


"Leopoldstadt deserves a Broadway transfer, but New York audiences will hardly need Gretl to deliver her straight-to-auditorium explanation of what a bris is.  -- For all its Viennese setting, Leopoldstadt is thus a profoundly English play," wrote Kate Maltby in The New York Review of Books in her review, Tom Stoppard's Theatre of Memory.      
                           Link to the review in NYR Daily:
https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/02/14/tom-stoppards-theatre-of-memory/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=NYR Tyranny

These two Jewish 21st-century English-speaking politicians have a very similar ancestral history,  superficially, they have similar characteristics, but I think that the deep-rooted dissimilar cultures that raised them made them recognizably, insurmountably, steeped in those very specific different cultural experiences.

House passes historic legislation to make lynching a federal hate crime
The Emmett Till Antilynching Act, a federal hate crime, was passed and signed into law in 2020 -- so recently that the word antilynching is considered a misspelled word on the internet.  The expressive  historical connection to this one tip of the iceberg fact is so brutal, bloody, anxiety-ridden with fear, rage, that if it doesn't appear in our cultural expression, if it is suppressed in any way when it is lived every day to the moment you're reading these words, I think that that in itself is a crime.

Americans and the English speak the same language and understand each other's culture, but understanding isn't synonymous with being steeped in it, having it carved, literally and figuratively, into one's DNA.  There are English cultural behaviors that are foreign to Americans and would be confusingly out of place in our Congress or if performed in a "profoundly English" play on Broadway.  The talented performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Oyelowo, Daniel Kaluuya and Cynthia Erivo were, for me, also confusingly foreign and out of place.  Missing or erased from their performances, not  because they haven't experienced racism, but because they only understand American racism intellectually -- that specific rage born of a specific relentless exclusion from safety to a specific everyday expectation of harm -- finds expression on the faces of all African-Americans, from toddlers to the elderly, and we Americans, all of us, are familiar with that expression, that behavior, and when it's absent from a Black face, we recognize that as well.  Nevertheless, on a personal note, even though I recognized what I thought was misguided if not worse, cynical, casting of the English actors mentioned above, about a year ago, during an audition rehearsal, an African-American actor pointed out to me that my criticisms, my clamping the lid on his manner, on his expression of the text and his physical behavior was whitewashing (my word) his concept of the character.  I'm indebted to him.  Consider how often my error makes its way into performances.

The following two scenes from the film of August Wilson's play, Fences, directed by Denzel Washington are examples of how profoundly American that drama is, and how expressively American its characters are.

 The talent exhibited here is not a rarity of the talent, both active and dormant of African-American writers, directors, actors.  I wrote, perhaps obliquely, on 6/16/17 and 3/17/19, Diversity, Talent, Technique, Opportunity and Samuel L. Jackson about this topic.  I'll be more direct now:  It is pure ignorance of acting technique for any director, producer or actor to describe the traditional training of actors in England as classical, and by comparison or inference to describe actor training in the U.S. as anything other than classical; notwithstanding the divergent distortions of Stanislavski sometimes taught here.   Further, whether in England or the U.S., institutions like RADA or Juilliard, universities or studios, charge exorbitant tuition fees that exclude the majority of both our populations.  Is elitist too harsh a word?  Naaa, I don't think so.  A lot of talent has crossed my threshold only to quit in despair because they couldn't afford to continue even with the discount of my already lower than average fees.  Add to that the bottleneck of scarce opportunity to audition, let alone perform.

Once more, as I've already offered, if space will be provided, I'll teach anywhere at Uta's rate as described by Charles Nelson Reilly in my 12/10/13 post, The Life of Reilly.  I welcome discussion and I plan to visit this topic in future posts.

Thursday, February 20, 2020


A student expressed interest in why I said "films," plural, regarding Noah Baumbach's work in the post titled Character or Caricature?  Laura Dern - Marriage Story.  Admittedly, I haven't seen all of his films, but I have seen quite a few, since I like his screenplays and his visual syntax very much.  Okay, recall that in my other post titled Scarlett Johansson - Innate Talent Without Technique - Pitfalls - Marriage Story, I noted the discrepancy between correct instinctive performance and absence of technique where the actor mistakenly performs narratively rather than dramatically.  I noticed the error of narrative performance in The Meyerwitz Stories as well.  These two scenes are performed narratively; Marriage Story from the blog post as reference (above), and from The Meyerwitz Stories (below):

The reason I said there are excellent performances alongside drastic errors in Mr. Baumbach's films: In Marriage Story, Alan Alda's performance was exemplary, as was Ray Liotta's performance.  Adam Driver performed beautifully in his scenes with those two actors and also in his scenes with Azhy Robertson.  However, the pitfalls I described that occur when an actor relies on instinct rather than using the tools of technique, occurred particularly in his scenes with Ms. Johansson.  When she worked correctly, so did he, but, for example, in the climactic argument scene, because it was performed correctly in certain moments then moved in and out of narrative exposition, I think she derailed him, and ironically, his character's note to her in the beginning of the film that she was pushing for emotion is what actually happened to both of them in that well-written argument scene.

Here's a sample of the excellent performances of Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller in The Meyerwitz Stories.  This scene is near the end of the film. I included a snippet of the prior fight scene in order to note the characters' previous circumstances.  Please see the film and note the excellent creation of character through the arc of the drama, attention to the rising action, correct focus on the needs of the character -- journey of discovery -- by both of these excellent actors:


Tuesday, February 18, 2020