|An Ennui Free City
One would have to be insensate to be bored with New York. The city may evoke at
times, even in a New York-lover like myself, all sorts of negative emotions - irritation,
despair, rage, and revulsion - but not ennui. Besides its spontaneous and
continuous street dramas, on any given day and night the city provides a wide
range of cultural offerings - some merely time-consuming and forgettable, but a
great many aesthetically and intellectually exhilarating. Still, although
attending cultural events has never become the be-all of my existence (I never
feel I must run out to see everything that whets my interest), exciting
cultural offerings do play a significant role in my New York life.
Recently, my wife and I attended a preview of Tony Kushner's prolixly titled
new play The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with
a Key to the Scriptures. The play is a family drama about a left-wing
longshoreman and union leader, Gus Marcantonio, and his three grown children,
two of whom are lesbian or gay. It's a profoundly ambitious play that Kushner
sees as dealing with - among other things - “unionism, communism, Marxism and
socialism, and despair, death and sex.” It's also a sprawling, intellectually and
emotionally intense drama. I hesitate discussing its flaws here, since Kushner
continues to tinker with the play's shape before it opens in May.
But what always excites me about watching a play by Kushner - arguably our best
living dramatist - is his political intelligence and passion, and his capacity
to capture the intricacy of all varieties of familial, sexual and romantic
relationships. As always, Kushner avoids reducing his major characters to one
or two predictable qualities - never turning them into mere representatives of
a political position, or into a one-dimensional portrait.
In this clamorous naturalistic play, Gus, its bigger-than-life patriarch, who
lives in his family's house in Brooklyn, wants to commit suicide, and asks his
children and his sister (a former nun and ex-Maoist) to affirm his decision.
Kushner's vision is a dialectical one. For every point of view offered, a
contradictory one is expressed in turn. Kushner, a man of the left, has always
expressed uncertainty about what it means to be a radical in "a world like
this." Here he conveys Gus's despairing sense that a life given over to
radical political commitments has lost its meaning, because his dream of
working class revolution is no longer viable. He is countered by his
labor-lawyer daughter MT (Linda Emond), who is wholeheartedly engaged in
working for change through the system. And though Kushner expresses no explicit
judgment on their respective positions, and is clearly enamored with Gus's
political fervor and volatile life force - it's MT's incremental politics that
he extends more sympathy for.
Right before seeing the Kushner play, I attended Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.
Stoppard's brilliant work is playful, scintillating, exquisitely choreographed.
It deals, on one level, with arcane ideas like chaos theory, and is much more
controlled and buoyant than Kushner's. But the latter carries a sexual and
political vision that feels viscerally torn from his inner being. I prefer
Kushner's much less perfect work to Stoppard's elegantly calibrated one, though
grateful that both have been staged.
A number of excellent documentaries are also now being
screened around the city. Three recent documentaries (all at the IFC Center)
that I have seen are: Armadillo, which follows a platoon of Danish
soldiers on a six-month tour of Afghanistan, where they may have murdered
wounded Taliban; My Perestroika, dealing with the lives of five
Muscovites reflecting on their sheltered Soviet totalitarian childhood and the
more prosperous authoritarianism of Putin's post-Soviet Russia; and Bill
Cunningham New York, a depiction of an 80 year old Sunday Times photographer, who is New York City's chronicler of both everyday and high
fashion. The film's fascination (especially for someone like myself who has no
interest in fashion) lies in director Richard Press's capturing of Cunningham's
uniqueness - as he pedals around the city snapping photos that appear in the
Style section in the On the Street page, featuring shots of average
citizens out in Manhattan dressed in ways that catch his eye; and his Evening
Hours section, focusing on the moneyed, the celebrated, and the
narcissistically fashionable, attending the city's countless gala charity
events. A product of a Catholic working-class family, he is an original - at
once an ascetic (his own taste in clothing, food, and shelter is minimalist)
and an aesthete. We see his perfectionism, integrity, and fidelity to his
own vision. He is utterly egalitarian about fashion-couture clothes are of no
more interest to him than the outrageous get-ups of ordinary people.
Many people seem to like Bill, including the powerful, imperious fashion
doyenne Anna Wintour and the late Brooke Astor, but few appear to know him. In
fact, the film treads lightly on the personal - Bill recoils from publicly
dealing with his private life. He sees everything else as superfluous except
his artistic obsession. He's an idiosyncratic subject, and the film is a joy to
I also attended for the first time a writers' workshop on de-gentrifying
New York at the PEN World Voices of International Literature - April 25 to May
1. PEN invited more than 100 writers from forty nations to celebrate the
writer's voice in public discourse in panel discussions, one-on-one
conversations, readings, and performances at varied venues around the city from
the High Line to the Morgan Library. It's one event among the city's infinite
offerings that I won't miss next year.