Thursday, March 31, 2005

Warner Signs Virginia Property-Rights Laws

On January 25, I reported with some foreboding, "Two bills under consideration by the Virginia General Assembly, designed to protect the rights of property owners against aggressive eminent domain practices by state and local government, are in danger of defeat at the committee level."

I am now happy to report that the bills not only passed the General Assembly, they have now been signed into law by Governor Mark Warner.

According to a message from the Virginia Property Rights Coalition:

We have just received the wonderful news that HB1820 and HB 1821 have been signed by Governor Warner. Attendance at Committee Meetings, all of the grassroots calls, letters, and e-mails, lobbying by Susan Rubin of the Virginia Farm Bureau and the hard work of Delegate Bob McDonald made the difference this year.

As you know all previous efforts to pass this type of legislation have been stopped in Committee never reaching the floor of the General Assembly.

Below is a copy of both bills.

HB 1820
Eminent domain; regulations for condemnor's right of entry.

Terrie L. Suit

Summary as passed:
Eminent domain; right of entry to inspect. Modifies the provisions associated with a condemnor's entry onto property by (i) expanding the information provided in the initial request for permission to inspect and strengthening delivery requirements; (ii) requiring that the notice of intent to enter be posted or otherwise delivered to the owner in person, in addition to being sent by certified mail; and (iii) providing that if the owner files an action to recover damages caused by entry and is awarded judgment in an amount 30 percent or more than the condemnor's final written offer, or if the court finds that the condemnor maliciously, willfully or recklessly damaged the owner's property, the court may award the owner reasonable court costs, attorney fees, and fees for up to three expert witnesses testifying at trial.

HB 1821
Eminent domain; procedure for acquisition of property by State.

Terrie L. Suit

Summary as passed:
Eminent domain; acquisition of property. Modifies the provisions associated with acquisitions under eminent domain by (i) requiring that a state agency's acquisition of real property be conducted in accordance with provisions that are only precatory under current law, including that the state agency establish an initial amount that is no less than the agency's approved appraisal of the fair market value of the property and that no owner can be required to surrender possession until the state agency pays the agreed purchase price or deposits funds with the court, and (ii) providing that if an owner is awarded at trial as compensation for the taking of or damage to property an amount that is 30 percent or more greater than the amount of the petitioner's written offer, the court may award the owner reasonable appraisal and engineering fees, and reasonable fees and travel costs for up to three expert witnesses testifying at trial. The cost award provisions do not apply to cases involving easements valued at less than $10,000 or to cases in which a petition in condemnation or certificate of take or deposit was filed prior to July 1, 2005.

These bills are a great victory and though there is still much to do next year, lets just take a while and really enjoy this monentous step toward an eminent domain system that treats Virginia property owners fairly.
These bills do not address all of the issues of eminent domain abuse that should concern property owners and taxpayers. They do not rise to meet the questions at play in the Kelo case now under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court, for instance. Yet they add something of a cushion to Virginia law to give property owners more protection today than they had yesterday.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Praise from Unexpected Quarters

Perhaps it's time for a little self-congratulation. Writing in the Virginia News Source, conservative Democrat Steve Sisson -- known as "the Blue Dog" -- puts this blog in his "top ten" list of Virginia political Web log sites, along with several blogs you'll see on my sidebar, either as part of the Old Dominion Blog Alliance or freestanding. Sisson, who ran as the "anti-tax" candidate against incumbent Republican state Senator Emmett Hanger two years ago, writes:

Since last year, the Blue Dog has made it a habit to pan thru the political blogs daily for rumors and news that are not in newsprint. But most of the statewide pages are strictly an amateur-hour blogs and heart-wrenching blogaries, which are combination Web logs and teen diaries.

Sisson's top ten Virginia political blogs are:

1. Sic Semper Tyrannis
2. The Virginia Conservative
3. Bacon's Rebellion
4. Raising Kaine
5. Waldo Jaquith
6. Commonwealth Watch
7. One Man's Trash
8. SW Virginia Law
9. Virginia Progressive
10. Rick Sincere Thoughts
Sisson, whose column also appears in the Augusta Free Press, adds:

There's no doubt, the Blue Dog is definitely hooked on blogflogging.

I blog, therefore, I am.

And there are plenty of political blogs that are popping up in the Old Dominion to scrutinize - some 'Pub, some Dem, some gay, some Libertarian, some bipartisan and some are just plain weird fodder from Planet Nine.

When one considers, first, that this is only partially a political blog -- I hope my comments on arts and culture are at least as prominent as my comments on politics and current affairs -- and, second, that my commentary on Virginia politics is only a portion of its total political content, and, third, that this blog only began on December 22 of last year, this is high praise indeed.

I only hope I can continue to live up to the honor.

The Silencing of GayPatriot

Word moved swiftly across the blogosphere about the silencing, by intimidation, of the anonymous blogger, GayPatriot, a self-described conservative Bush supporter whose blog has had more than 200,000 visitors since its launch in September 2004.

GayPatriot had published an incendiary challenge to left-wing gay activists Michael Rogers and John Aravosis, who have in recent months been "outing" closeted gay conservatives and Republicans, sometimes with solid, sometimes with flimsy evidence. Their biggest trophy: former Virginia Congressman Ed Schrock, who withdrew from his re-election race last year under a cloud of accusations that he had arranged sexual liaisons through a gay telephone dating service.

Yesterday, the Washington Blade (a highly respected gay newspaper) revealed the identity of the erstwhile anonymous GayPatriot, even going so far as to publish his photograph on the Blade's online-only blog. (It remains to be seen whether this controversy will be discussed in the Blade's primary, print publication, or if it is more of a tempest in a blogger's teapot.)

Is there a protocol for revealing or protecting the identity of an anonymous blogger?

My view is shaped and expressed by Justice John Paul Stevens' opinion in McIntyre v. Ohio Election Commission (1995):

Anonymous pamphlets, leaflets, brochures and even books have played an important role in the progress of mankind." Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60, 64 (1960). Great works of literature have frequently been produced by authors writing under assumed names. Despite readers' curiosity and the public's interest in identifying the creator of a work of art, an author generally is free to decide whether or not to disclose her true identity. The decision in favor of anonymity may be motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much of one's privacy as possible. Whatever the motivation may be, at least in the field of literary endeavor, the interest in having anonymous works enter the marketplace of ideas unquestionably outweighs any public interest in requiring disclosure as a condition of entry. Accordingly, an author's decision to remain anonymous, like other decisions concerning omissions or additions to the content of a publication, is an aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment.

* * *

Under our Constitution, anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent. Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. See generally J. S. Mill, On Liberty, in On Liberty and Considerations on Representative Government 1, 3-4 (R. McCallum ed. 1947). It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation--and their ideas from suppression--at the hand of an intolerant society. The right to remain anonymous may be abused when it shields fraudulent conduct. But political speech by its nature will sometimes have unpalatable consequences, and, in general, our society accords greater weight to the value of free speech than to the dangers of its misuse. See Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630-31 (1919) (Holmes, J., dissenting). Ohio has not shown that its interest in preventing the misuse of anonymous election related speech justifies a prohibition of all uses of that speech. The State may, and does, punish fraud directly. [footnotes omitted]

Since the Federal Election Commission is considering regulations that may inhibit bloggers from "electioneering" (i.e., expressing their views about candidates in contravention of McCain-Feingold's First Amendment-emasculating provisions), it would be good to keep these principles in mind -- regardless of whether we are bloggers or not.

Now, I understand there is a difference between the government forcing a revelation of an anonymous pamphleteer's identity (or a blogger's identity) and a political adversary doing so through private investigations and the open press. But there's still something unseemly, almost creepy, about the latter practice, which should be discouraged as a matter of decorum in public discourse.

Cato, Publius, GayPatriot ... a tradition lives on. But will it be allowed to continue?

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

On Howell Heflin: 1921-2005

The New York Times reports the death of former Alabama Senator Howell Heflin:

Former Senator Howell Heflin of Alabama, a conservative Democrat who supported civil rights legislation and was sometimes described as the conscience of the Senate, died on Tuesday at a hospital in Sheffield, Ala., near his home in Tuscumbia. He was 83.

His death was announced by his family.

Mr. Heflin, a large, bearlike man, was chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court before he was elected in 1978 to the Senate, where he served for 18 years.

Although a sophisticated and judicious thinker, Heflin promoted an impression that he was something of a country bumpkin (sort of like the way The Simpsons would portray Matlock -- or Phil Hartman's famous "caveman" attorney on Saturday Night Live).

This anecdote -- which I heard from an eyewitness -- illustrates how Heflin cultivated this image.

One evening at the now-closed but once chic midtown Manhattan restaurant, Lutece, Heflin was dining with lawyers and lobbyists. The sommelier came by to take the table's wine order, when Senator Heflin drawled, "Suh, do you have any roe-zay wine?"

"No, sir," the sommelier replied, "I'm sorry, but we have only red and white wines on our list. Would you like a cabernet, perhaps, or a pinot noir?"

"That just won't do," said Judge Heflin. "But I'll tell you what: Bring me one bottle of red wine and one bottle of white, and I'll figger things out."

The sommelier brought two bottles of fine wine, one red, one white, as requested.

Then, to the astonishment of the waiter, the sommelier, and everyone seated at the table, Heflin proceeded to pour both wines simultaneously into his glass, mixing them with a spoon.

He took a sip and smiled, pronouncing: "That's a fine roe-zay."

And that was Howell Heflin.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Moonwalk of the Sugar Plum Fairy

Michael Jackson told Jesse Jackson (no relation) on the latter's radio program that there were two inspirations for the megahit album, Thriller. As reported in the Washington Post Style section (where all stories on Michael Jackson and his trial belong):

"I used to see signs of graffiti saying 'disco sucks.' . . . Disco was just a happy medium of making people dance, but it was so popular that the society was turning against it. . . . I loved the album that Tchaikovsky did, the 'Nutcracker' Suite. It's an album where every song is a great song. [I decided] I'm going to do an album where every song is a hit record."

Tchaikovsky? He was one of those prolific Brill Building songwriters from the 1960s, wasn't he? That "Nutcracker" album he did was Billboard Top 40 for weeks until the Beatles came along. Then he faded away into obscurity. He was last seen as a rehearsal pianist for amateur ballet companies in the upper Midwest.

Quite an inspiration, indeed. Word is that Cyndi Lauper is basing her comeback CD on the soundtrack recordings Clara Schumann made for the Beach Blanket movies with Frankie and Annette.

Friday, March 25, 2005

TACT Revives 'Moby Dick Rehearsed'

In Arlington, Virginia, this weekend, the American Century Theatre is remounting a production of Orson Welles' Moby Dick Rehearsed, which was a hit for the company almost a decade ago.

I mentioned the success of this play in my review of TACT's production of Kurt Weill's Lady in the Dark the following season, and a blurb ended up on the TACT website:

"Orson Welles' Moby Dick Rehearsed... was a triumph of physicality and illusion. The show had to be extended several times -- yet it was a play that hardly anyone had ever heard about before the TACT production."
-- Rick Sincere, Metro Herald

I won't be able to see the new production until next weekend. In the meantime, here's my review of the original show eight years ago (note how it is combined, slyly, with a review of a community theatre production of another show with a seagoing theme).

This review appeared in The Metro Herald in May 1997:

Two Ships Passing in the Night in Arlington
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Arlington County, like the Washington metropolitan area as a whole, has a wealth of arts and entertainment resources. Besides the nationally-renowned Signature Theatre (whose fame outclasses its home in a former warehouse in a hard-to-reach part of the county), there are numerous community theatre groups, orchestras and chamber ensembles, and art galleries.

Two recent theatrical offerings in Arlington demonstrate the depth and diversity possible even in a small, suburban community. The productions have little in common -- except they are both being staged in Arlington middle schools and both take place aboard an oceangoing vessel.

American Century Theater's staging of Orson Welles' Moby Dick Rehearsed is by far the more ambitious of the two. The Arlington Players' version of Cole Porter's Anything Goes lacks ambition, but it is full of fun and energy.

Moby Dick Rehearsed makes a virtue out of necessity. The play is shaped as a rehearsal -- presumably a staged reading, though the actors do not use scripts -- on a bare stage with no costumes and only the roughest props. For the peripatetic Welles, Moby Dick Rehearsed was his final venture into original stage productions in a career that veered from radio to movies to television to the legitimate theatre. The "director" (Charles Matheny, who also plays Captain Ahab) is based upon Welles himself, with all the pomposity and unpredictability that that implies. Welles is said to have based this play's unique staging on his own experience in the 1930s, when he was forced by circumstance to present plays on shoestring budgets with no access to lighting, costumes, props, or sets.

The story of Moby Dick is familiar -- the obsessive Captain Ahab searches the ocean for his nemesis, the white whale. Dialogue for the Moby Dick section of the play -- the bulk of the performance -- is lifted almost verbatim from Herman Melville's novel. It is a classical tragedy.

The cast is almost all-male (one actress, Joy Jones, ends up playing a male role, Pip, the cabin boy) and works together as a finely-oiled machine. This is a true ensemble production. One can imagine the hours and hours of acting exercises that preceded rehearsals for Moby Dick Rehearsed, because this multi-person cast moves together in unison, sings in a capella harmony, moves set pieces in total darkness, and improvises dialogue with no perceptible artifice. Director Jack Marshall has done a marvelous job in bringing together diverse actors to create a unified whole.

The same weekend that Moby Dick Rehearsed opened at Gunston Middle School at the south end of Arlington County, Anything Goes opened in central Arlington's Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

The two plays could not present a better study in contrasts. Where Moby Dick Rehearsed is dark and brooding, Anything Goes is lighthearted and frivolous. Both plays are set on ships, but the resemblance ends there.

To be perfectly frank, Anything Goes has run its course as a viable play. Its songs are witty and melodious -- but they would be better presented in a Cole Porter revue rather than in the musical comedy form. For a generation raised on Rodgers & Hammerstein and Stephen Sondheim, the lack of integration in music and drama is a serious disappointment. As good as the songs are, they do little to advance the plot or define the characters. They are interchangeable with songs from almost any other Porter musical (Kiss Me, Kate excepted). As a matter of fact, this version of Anything Goes is not the play that premiered in 1934, but rather a revival from the early 1960s that "borrows" songs from other Porter shows -- the most prominent example being "Friendship," which originally appeared in the 1942 musical DuBarry Was a Lady.

The plot is simple: Billy Crocker (John Schlitt) stows away on the luxury liner S.S. American to be with the girl of his dreams, Hope Harcourt (Elizabeth Eck), who is traveling to London with her fiancé, Sir Evelyn Oakleigh (Kevin Adams), and her mother (Joyce Weiser). Also aboard are Moonface Martin (John J. DeCore), who is "Public Enemy #13", and evangelist-turned-nightclub singer Reno Sweeney (Beth McAlexander Kubiak) and her "Angels." Hiding out from the ship's officers, Billy is mistaken for Public Enemy Number One, chaos ensues, people sing and dance, and in the end everyone lives happily ever after.

All of the leading roles are filled by solid actors who can sing well and dance passably. Unfortunately, the cast is quite unbalanced -- apart from the leading men, there are no men among the passengers. The chorus, as a result, is almost entirely female. No doubt this caused the choreographer multiple problems. Community theatres often complain about the lack of men available for musicals, but in this case, the problem could have been solved by adding a song from the original 1934 version of Anything Goes, "Where Are the Men?", in which the female passengers lament to the captain the absence of the opposite sex. This amusing song could have both explained and dismissed the casting imbalance.

Despite these misgivings, Anything Goes is pure family entertainment, full of jokes and slapstick. For good reason, it is a mainstay of community theatre groups across the country.

Now, for good measure (and complete information), here is the text of the news release announcing TACT's new production of Orson Welles' Moby Dick Rehearsed:
Orson Welles’ Moby Dick Rehearsed Returns:
American Century Theater Mounts New Production, Opens March 24

Nearly ten years ago, a young DC theater company brought to the stage a forgotten work by a great American artist…Orson Welles’ brilliant 1955 adaptation of Herman Melville’s classic whaling adventure, Moby Dick. The production created a sensation, and put that theater company, the American Century Theater, on the map. Today, the American Century Theater is the Washington area’s acknowledged master of neglected 20th Century plays. Now, to celebrate its 10th season, it is combining the best of its original production with the additional experience, talent and expertise it has developed over the past decade to bring audiences a new Moby Dick Rehearsed that is more exhilarating than ever.

Moby Dick Rehearsed, Welles’ only play, is a celebration of pure theater. The show combines techniques of radio, improvisation, stagecraft and Welles’ own special brand of managed chaos to do the impossible: audiences actually believe that a monstrous whale is lurking under the theater.

"Moby Dick Rehearsed is really two shows,” said TACT artistic director Jack Marshall, who directed the original production and is relishing this second round with the material. “It is a dynamic dramatization of one of the greatest adventure stories of all time, and it is also about the essence of what makes live theater special. Just as seeing Singing in the Rain makes you want to dance, seeing Moby Dick Rehearsed makes you want to see more live theater.”

Marshall has hand-picked an ensemble that includes six of the original cast, supplemented by a collection of stand-outs who have been memorable in 25 of TACT’s 47 productions. Returning is Charles Matheny as the mad Captain Ahab, as well as David Jourdan (Stubb), Michael Sherman (Mastheader), Glenn White (Peleg), John Tweel (Queegqueg), and Tim Lynch, Ishmael in the first Moby Dick Rehearsed, who will play First Mate Starbuck in this production.

Joining the Pequod crew are Bill Aitkin, just seen in Tea and Sympathy; Joe Cronin, most recently the tragic Gus in Paradise Lost; Christian Yingling, memorable in Uncle Tom's Cabin; Jeff Consoletti of Tea and Sympathy, Derrick Lampkins, featured in Porgy, Tom Fuller, TACT’s resident musical director, and Shane Wallis, the feisty Insigna of TACT’s Mister Roberts, among other roles.

Producer Rhonda Hill has enlisted original Moby Dick Rehearsed set designer Michael DeBlois along with lighting designer Marianne Meadows, sound designer Dan Murphy, Costumer Rip Claasen and props designer Eleanor Gomberg to repeat the magic.

“It really is magic,” said Marshall. “Welles was a magician and he insisted that live theater be full of wonder, surprises and the unexpected. Moby Dick Rehearsed is his very best trick. Bring your family, bring your kids, and most of all, bring your imagination.”

Moby Dick Rehearsed runs March 24-April 30, 2005. Performances are Wednesday-Saturday evenings at 8 PM and 2:30 PM matinees on April 3, 10, 16, 17, 23, 30. Performances are at Theater II, Gunston Arts Center, 2700 S. Lang Street, Arlington, Virginia 22206. Tickets are $18-$26. As always, accompanied by a paying adult, a child under 18 can see the show for free. For information/tickets/group sales call 703-553-8782 or visit

The American Century Theater is a 501 (c) (3) professional nonprofit theater company dedicated to producing, great, important and neglected 20th Century American playwrights. TACT is funded in part by the Arlington County Cultural Affairs Division of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services, the Virginia Commission for the Arts, numerous foundations and many generous donors.

Carter, Baker Start Election Mischief Commission

(This news release arrived in my email box today. It was distributed on American University letterhead.)


Contact: Todd Sedmak, 202-885-5950

Washington, D.C.--(March 24, 2005)--Former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III, announced today that they will co-chair a Commission on Federal Election Reform to examine the state of America’s federal elections and recommend improvements.

Carter and Baker have assembled a private, bi-partisan commission whose membership includes former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, former House Minority Leader Bob Michel, former U.S. Representatives Lee Hamilton and Susan Molinari, university presidents, scholars and community leaders. A list of the members is attached.

After the 2000 presidential vote, former presidents Carter and Gerald Ford convened a National Commission on Election Reform, and their report contributed to the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002. Despite this reform, there were many problems during the election of 2002 involving both issues of inclusion and integrity.

The new Commission on Federal Election Reform will look at those and other voting problems, examine the implementation of HAVA, and propose recommendations to improve the electoral process.

“I am concerned about the state of our electoral system and believe we need to improve it,” President Carter said. “I have monitored elections all over the world, and there is much we could learn from other democracies and from our own citizens. We will try to define an electoral system for the 21st century that will make Americans proud again.”

“America’s democracy is the backbone of our society, and only through fair elections can we guarantee that our system remains healthy,” former Secretary Baker said. “To help reach that goal, I welcome the opportunity of working with President Jimmy Carter on a bi-partisan commission that will recommend ways to improve our federal voting process. A prior commission, which President Carter co-chaired with President Gerald Ford, made recommendations that resulted in significant changes for the 2004 election. But more can be done to guarantee the integrity and accuracy of our elections.”

The Center for Democracy and Election Management (CDEM) at American University will organize the work of the Commission, in association with the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, The Carter Center, and, a national clearinghouse of election reform information sponsored by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Dr. Robert A. Pastor, CDEM Director, is the Executive Director of the Commission. ”We will assemble a group of academic advisors that will prepare background analyses for the Commission,” said Dr. Pastor, “and we will reach out to seek the views of representatives from a wide-ranging group of nongovernmental organizations involved in election-related issues.” Doug Chapin, Director of, will serve as Research Director for the Commission.

The Commission plans to hold two public hearings -- the first on April 18 at American University in Washington, D.C., and the second at the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston at a date in June -- with the goal of releasing a report in September when Congress returns from its Labor Day 2005 recess.

Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform

Members Biographies


President Jimmy Carter
President Carter was the 39th President of the United States from 1977 to 1981 and 83rd Governor of Georgia from 1971 to 1975. In 1982 he founded the Carter Center as a forum for mediating conflicts and promoting democracy, health care, and human rights. He co-chaired with former President Gerald Ford the National Commission on Election Reform.

The Honorable James A. Baker, III

James A. Baker, III has served in senior government positions under three United States Presidents. He served as Secretary of State, Secretary of Treasury, and White House Chief of Staff. Mr. Baker is presently a senior partner in the law firm of Baker Botts and Honorary Chairman of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

Executive Director:

Robert Pastor
Dr. Robert Pastor is the Director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management and Vice President of International Affairs at American University. Before coming to AU in 2002, Pastor was Professor at Emory University and Founding Director of The Carter Center’s Latin American and Democracy Programs, where he organized the monitoring of elections all over the world. He was Senior Advisor to the National Commission on Election Reform.

Other Members:

Ms. Betty Castor
Betty Castor was the 2004 Democratic Party nominee for the US Senate from Florida. Castor served as Florida Commissioner of Education from 1986-93. She served three terms as a state senator from the west coast of Florida, becoming the first female to hold the position of President Pro Tempore (1985-86).

Hon. Tom Daschle
Tom Daschle was elected and served as a U.S. Congressman (1978-86) and U.S. Senator from South Dakota (1986-2004). From 1994-2004, he was the Senate Minority Leader. In 2005, Senator Daschle joined the Legislative and Public Policy Group of the law firm Alston & Bird, LLP.

Ms. Rita DiMartino
Rita Dimartino was the Vice President of Congressional Relations for AT&T where she assisted in AT&T's relations with the administration, Congress, and state governments. DiMartino was appointed in February 2002 as the Principal U.S. Delegate to the Inter-American Commission of Women.

Hon. Lee Hamilton
Lee Hamilton is president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Prior to becoming director of the Woodrow Wilson Center in 1999, Hamilton served for 34 years in Congress representing Indiana's Ninth District. During his tenure, he served as Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. He was Vice Chairman of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States and Co-chair with Senator Howard Baker of the Commission to Investigate Certain Security Issues at Los Alamos.

Ms. Kay Coles James

Kay Coles James was the Director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management from 2001 to 2005. James served as a Senior Fellow and Director of The Citizenship Project at the Heritage Foundation. Under President George H. W. Bush, James was an Assistant Secretary for Health and Human Services.

Dr. Benjamin Ladner

Benjamin Ladner is the President of American University in Washington, D.C. As President since 1994, Dr. Ladner has led the transformation of AU into a distinctive, global university with a reputation as "a private university with a public responsibility." Dr. Ladner serves as Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Consortium of fourteen Universities in the Washington Metropolitan area. Before coming to AU, he was President of the National Faculty, an association of university professors founded by Phi Beta Kappa.

Dr. David Leebron

David Leebron was appointed president of Rice University in Houston, Texas in 2004. Leebron joined Rice from Columbia University School of Law, where he was Dean since 1996 and a faculty member since 1989. Prior to that, he was a professor of law at New York University and director of NYU’s International Legal Studies Program.

Dr. Nelson Lund

Nelson Lund is the Patrick Henry Professor of Constitution Law and the Second Amendment at George Mason University in Virginia. Professor Lund served in the White House as associate counsel to the president from 1989 to 1992. He served as a law clerk to Justice Patrick Higginbotham of the Court of Appeals and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Dr. Shirley Malcom

Shirley Malcom is Head of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources Programs of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Dr. Malcom served n the National Science Board, the governing board of the National Science Foundation from 1994-2001, and has served on the Boards of the Carnegie Corporation, the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, and CalTech.

Hon. Bob Michel

Bob Michel was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois from 1957 to 1993. He served as Minority Whip for the ninety-fourth through ninety-sixth Congresses and Minority Leader for the ninety seventh through one hundred third Congresses. He was Vice Chair of the Carter-Ford National Commission on Election Reform.

Hon. Susan Molinari

Susan Molinari is the President and CEO of the Washington Group, a government relations and lobbying firm. She was a member of Congress from New York from 1990 to 1997. In 1994, she was elected to the Republican Majority Leadership. She was twice elected to the New York City Council and was Minority Leader on the Council.

Hon. Robert Mosbacher

Robert Mosbacher is chairman of Mosbacher Energy Company. He is the past chairman of the Republican National Committee and served as National Finance Chairman for the election campaigns of Presidents Ford and George H. W. Bush. He served as Secretary of Commerce under President Bush from 1989 to 1992.

Hon. Ralph Munro

Ralph Munro was the Secretary of State for Washington State from 1980 to 2001. Under Mr. Munro’s leadership, Washington State saw significant advancement in the efficiency of state election services including absentee voting, voter registration, election reporting and voter information.

Mr. Spencer Overton

Spencer Overton is Associate Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School where his scholarly interests include voting rights, race, and campaign finance. Overton was Charles Hamilton Houston Fellow at Harvard Law School and serves as a director of the National Voting rights Institute and the Fannie Lou Hamer Project. He practiced law with Debevoise and Plimpton and is on the Board of Common Cause.

Ms. Sharon Priest

Sharon Priest currently chairs the Arkansas State Election Improvement Study Commission, the State Board of election Commissioners, and the Capitol Arts and Grounds Commission. She was the first woman elected Arkansas Secretary of State in 1994 and was President of the National Association of Secretaries of State. She has been elected to public office six times from 1986 to the present, including Little Rock Board of Directors (1986-90), Vice-Mayor of Little Rock (1989-90), and Mayor of Little Rock (1991-92).

Mr. Raul Yzaguirre

Raul Yzaguirre is presidential professor of practice in community development and civil rights at Arizona State University. From 1974 to 2004, Yzaguirre was president of the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s leading Hispanic advocacy organization and the largest constituency-based national Latino organization.
I'll comment on this development later, after I've had a chance to review news reports on the Carter-Baker Commission.

'We the People' -- No, No, That Can't Be Rite

One of my correspondents, a conservative activist who follows Virginia politics and policy issues closely, sent me this note yesterday (which I publish here with his permission):

Wanted to tell you about a conversation I had with Senator Ken Stolle’s office this morning.

In [Wednesday]’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, in responding to Jerry Kilgore’s suggestion that future tax increases be subject to voter approval, Senator Ken Stolle said, "We entrust our legislators with certain responsibilities, and I would not favor an erosion of those responsibilities."

So, I asked a gentleman in the Senator’s office to whom "we" referred.

He said, "The people elect representatives to make decisions for them and once we get that responsibility we’re not going to give it up just because people might disagree with us."

So I asked, "When you say 'we're not going to give it up,' who is 'we'?"

He responded that it was "elected officials."

Finally, I said, "You sound like you are old enough to have finished your education, so I have just one more question. In a democratic republic who is the sovereign?"

His response, "I dunno." (I kid you not.)

Please call Senator Stolle’s office today at (757) 486-5700. It appears that we (the great unwashed) have some work to do in bringing these geniuses up to a remedial understanding of eighth grade civics.

Could this be a failure of the public school system?

To answer that last question, yes and no. It is more a failure of Senator Stolle for hiring ignorant staff members. There are smart people who learn about the U.S. Constitution despite the education they receive from government schools.

The problem of government schools' failure to teach basics in civics and public affairs is not new. A 1987 report from the ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education in Bloomington, Indiana, noted:

Although it is established in the secondary school curriculum, education on the Constitution has suffered from neglect and routine treatment. Assessments of curriculum guides indicate lengthy lists of concepts and topics about American constitutional government. However, there also are long lists of other goals pertaining to a broad range of concerns from environmental issues and global perspectives to social change and futuristic studies. The educational agenda is cluttered, and priorities often are unclear. In many schools, goals for study of the Consitution may be viewed as no more important than a vast array of competing purposes of education in the social studies.

Studies of standard secondary school textbooks have revealed restricted coverage and shallow treatment of basic principles, values, and issues of constitutional government. During the 1960s and 1970s, coverage of social history expanded at the expense of political history (including constitutional history).

It seems that study of the Constitution has all too often been overshadowed by trendy topics and curriculum fads. There is an underemphasis on the Constitution relative to other topics of lesser importance in citizenship education. In a recent study of the Constitution in American culture, historian Michael Kammen concludes: "The Constitution is too often neglected or poorly taught in American schools"

More recently, a Knight Foundation survey of over 100,000 high school students in over 500 schools across the country found woeful ignorance about First Amendment freedoms. As reported by Liz Harper of Online NewsHour:
"These results (of the study) are not only disturbing, they are dangerous," said the Knight Foundation's president, Hodding Carter III. "Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation's future."

. . . The survey illustrated that high school students were not learning enough about First Amendment issues and importance of a free press in their classes.

For instance, 36 percent of students said newspapers should receive government approval before publishing stories and another 32 percent thought the press had "too much freedom to do what it wants."

. . . The survey blamed the lack of awareness on incomplete social studies classes and a lack of high school journalism programs.

More than half of the high schools surveyed described their student media opportunities as low, but 85 percent of school administrators said they would expand media programs if they had the financial resources.

Still, we shouldn't expect too much from politicians or their staff members.

Whenever I get the opportunity, I ask candidates for public office to name the three programs they would eliminate or privatize once they are elected. I use this to gauge their commitment to limited goverment and also to see what their priorities are. When John Hager, for instance, then a candidate for governor, answered without hesitation at a public forum that he would privatize the state liquor monopoly, he sewed up my vote.

I remember once posing this question to a major-party candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates. He had trouble coming up with a response. So I prompted him: "Is there any activity that is not legitimate for the government to do?"

His reply: "I've never thought about that."

He was a Republican. Fortunately, he lost his race and disappeared into obscurity. (I tell the truth when I say I no longer recall the man's name.)

'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' -- Take Two

As I noted in my previous posting, yesterday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Broadway premiere of Tennessee Williams' play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I also mentioned that I had seen three productions of the play in recent years: at the Arena Stage in Washington in 1998, at Live Arts in Charlottesville in 2002, and at the Kennedy Center last year.

The Kennedy Center production may have been the best of the three, in large part because of director Mark Lamos' insightful division of the play into three acts. (Every other version I have seen has been done in two acts.) While watching the play, I knew something was odd, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Only afterwards did I realize that the division of the action was so logical and so superior to two-act divisions of the same work.

Another odd thing happened the night I saw the show at the Kennedy Center. I was sitting with my friend, Nigel Ashford, when at a critical moment in the play, when Brick has finally had so much to drink that he can say, with satisfaction, that he hears "the click" in his head that he has longed to hear, a woman sitting only a few seats away from us, in the same row, said, "It's about time!" in a voice loud enough to ring through the Eisenhower Theatre auditorium. It was jarring, to say the least.

But wait, there's more.

A few weeks later, attending the Kennedy Center's production of The Glass Menagerie with Sally Field, my friend, Tim Hulsey, and I were seated at the other end of the theatre. At a quiet but critical moment near the end of the play, that same woman, located in the same place, made another loud comment in reaction to the action on stage. Her voice was unmistakable.

But wait, there's still more.

Last week, seeing the opening night performance of Mister Roberts at the Kennedy Center, Tim Hulsey and I were there again. This time the lady spoke from the rear of the auditorium, just as Ensign Pulver gets his pluck at the end of the play. Luckily this was a comedy, so her comments were not so noticeable. But again, her voice was unmistakable.

I'm beginning to look forward to opening nights at the Kennedy Center, just to see when and what this woman announces something to the audience.

Anyway ... here is my review of the Kennedy Center's 2004 production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which appeared in The Metro Herald on June 25, 2004.

Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

A perspicacious critic -- not this one, alas -- observed a few years ago that in English-language plays of the latter half of the twentieth century, plot became a secondary and sometimes even a tertiary element. What happens is in itself not so important as how characters react to what happens or how they are affected by what happens. Consequently, contemporary drama has become more and more character-driven. Character and theme trump plot and action.

Tennessee WilliamsCat on a Hot Tin Roof, now in a new production at the Kennedy Center, may define this new sensibility as plainly as any other American play of its time. Stripped to its essentials, nothing happens. But what swirls around that “nothing” -- now that’s drama.

Divided into three acts, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof centers on Brick, who says as little as possible for a pivotal figure who is not a mute. Each act is self-contained, sufficiently so that they could be performed as one-act plays.

The first act is virtually a monologue for Brick’s wife, Margaret (“Maggie the Cat,” played by Mary Stuart Masterson). The second act is a dialogue between Brick and his father, Big Daddy (George Grizzard), while the third act is an ensemble piece comprising the entire family, including Big Mama (Dana Ivey), older brother Gooper (T. Scott Cunningham), and pregnant sister-in-law Mae (Emily Skinner).

Jeremy Davidson’s Brick is a taciturn drunk, seeking to drown his “disgust” in liquor. At the same time, as Maggie acknowledges, Brick has not, like other dipsomaniacs, lost his looks. She begs him to become fat and ugly so that she no longer desires him, since he has rejected her and no longer sleeps in the same bed with her (as Gooper and Mae gleefully learn by eavesdropping from the next room). Indeed, Davidson, who stirred Washington audiences a few years back in Signature Theatre’s Helen Hayes-winning Nijinsky’s Last Dance has the looks and appeal of a wolf on the prowl, someone who would turn heads upon entering any room. Yet Brick is totally indifferent to his sensuous allure.

Masterson’s curtain-raising monologue is a tour de force, as Williams presumably intended it to be. Delivered almost entirely while dressed in a scanty, flesh-toned slip – removing other items of clothing, bit by bit, like an inattentive ecdysiast – Masterson is a sultry and pouting Maggie. Yet despite the heat, Maggie comes across as emotionally shrammed, frozen by her spouse's indifference and her own regrets.

Maggie’s first-act speeches are revealing stream-of-consciousness. We learn practically all of the Cat on a Hot Tin Roof back story as Maggie complains to Brick about their relationship, about their treatment by the family, about her rivalry with Gooper’s wife, about her childhood and adolescence in a down-on-its-luck Southern society family. While she accuses Mae and Gooper of avarice, her own greed is only thinly disguised. Does she want a baby to produce an heir, or just to get her unresponsive husband into bed?

Maggie’s first-act monologue is briefly interrupted by an appearance of Ivey’s Big Mama, a force of nature herself. Big Mama is a woman who for forty years has deferred to her husband, quiet in her own way but always in control, always exercising her maternal instincts, extending even to making the bed for her adult son and his wife. Her ability to take control even in acknowledging her own weaknesses -- Big Mama is not an educated or a sophisticated woman, but she
knows what she wants and how to get it -- and in the face of impending tragedy is, perhaps, one of the most underestimated elements of this play.

In the second act, Brick and his father have a face-off. Big Daddy wants to know why Brick drinks so much. They explore -- as do Maggie and Brick -- Brick’s friendship with the deceased Skipper. Brick is upset that so many people assume that his and Skipper’s relationship was not “clean and true,” that they had been, in fact, lovers.

That everyone else in the play -- Maggie, Big Daddy, Gooper -- treat this peculiarity so matter-of-factly causes one to doubt Brick’s sincerity in denying it.

While Brick rails against “queers” and “sissies,” Big Daddy is a stolid monument to tolerance (he is even explicit about it) that seems out of place in a play by, about, and from the 1950s.

Grizzard’s Big Daddy is smaller in stature than many actors who have previously played the role, and he approaches the character with an underplayed subtlety that brings out previously undiscovered textures, making some of Big Daddy’s rough edges smoother without depriving him of his capacity to dominate not just a family, but also a plantation community of great size. Rather than the snarling patriarch audiences have come to expect, Grizzard gives us a man of tact and discretion, one who edits an earthy joke to make it palatable to his genteel audience.

The plot, such as it is, comes into play in the third act, when the family convenes to discuss the disposition of Big Daddy’s property in the event of his impending death from cancer. Gooper -- the responsible son -- has drawn up trusteeship papers. Unfortunately, his act of responsibility is perceived by Big Mama (not to mention by Maggie) as a presumptuous act of covetousness for Big Daddy’s $10 million cash fortune and 28,000 acres of prime farmland.

The design elements in the Kennedy Center’s production -- part of the Tennessee Williams Explored festival that extends through August -- are outstanding. Howell Binkley’s lighting, John Lee Beatty’s soaring set (which suggests an aerie-like quality for Maggie and Brick’s bedchamber), and especially Jane Greenwood’s 1950s-period costumes create just the right tone and provide us with an unmistakable sense of time and place. Director Mark Lamos demonstrates that he discerns who these people in Big Daddy’s family are and what matters to them.

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Thursday, March 24, 2005

50th Anniversary of 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'

Theatre critic Bob Mondello noted an anniversary today on NPR's All Things Considered:

Fifty years ago Thursday [March 24], Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opened on Broadway. The Tennessee Williams drama was a big hit in 1955, but the playwright didn't like the way Elia Kazan framed his drama. It was Williams' last big stage hit.

The original cast of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof included Ben Gazzara as Brick, Barbara Bel Geddes as Maggie, and Burl Ives as Big Daddy (who repeated the role in the movie). The first production played for 694 performances.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has been revived three times on Broadway, in 1974 (160 performances), 1990 (149 performances), and 2004 (145 performances). The revivals tended to be star vehicles for the actresses playing Maggie. In 1974, it was Elizabeth Ashley; in 1990, Kathleen Turner; and in 2004, Ashley Judd. I find this strange, because the play is really about Brick and Big Daddy -- though the actors playing Big Daddy in the revivals have also been stars in their own right as character actors (Fred Gwynne in 1974, Charles Durning in 1990, and Ned Beatty last year).

Besides the 1958 film starring Paul Newman as Brick and Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie, there was a 1984 teleplay with Jessica Lange as Maggie, Tommie Lee Jones as Brick, Kim Stanley as Big Mama, and Rip Torn as Big Daddy. (Lange is currently starring on Broadway as Amanda Wingfield with Christian Slater, Josh Lucas, and Sarah Paulson in a revival of The Glass Menagerie that opened March 22.)

I have seen productions of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof three times in recent years and have written two reviews. (I unfortunately failed to write a review of the 2002 production at Live Arts in Charlottesville.) Here is my review of the play as it was presented at the Arena Stage in Washington in 1998, in an essay that includes comments on two other plays about "family" relationships.

(This review appeared originally in The Metro Herald in September 1998.)

Twentieth Century Dysfunctions:
Plays by Beckett, Williams, and Freed
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Two mid-century classics and a new play with fin-de-siecle sensibility have recently opened on Washington stages. All three, for different reasons, deserve to be seen. All three provide both an evening's entertainment and considerable food for thought.

The three plays are Samuel Beckett's 1948 Waiting for Godot, at the Studio Theatre; Tennessee Williams' 1955 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, at the Arena Stage; and Amy Freed's 1998 Freedomland, at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Starting with the most recent first, Freedomland, which had its East Coast premiere at the Woolly Mammoth on September 19, is a hilarious comedy with a serious theme. It brings us into the lives of retired professor Noah Underfinger and his three adult children, Sigrid (a well-paid painter of clown portraits), Polly (a frustrated graduate student), and Seth (a brooding loner), during one weekend of unexpected reunion at Noah's rural home. Added to the mix are Noah's second wife, who is a therapist named Claude; Seth's pregnant (but not necessarily by him) girlfriend, Lori; and an unassuming art critic accompanying Sig, Titus.

Whether it is Amy Freed's spot-on dialogue or Howard Shalwitz's manic but controlled direction, something about this play brings out the best in each of the cast members. No one stands out because all are terrific. Rhea Seehorn, as Lori, creates a far more successful character here than she did in Signature Theatre's Shooting in Madrid last season, although her accent sometimes wobbles between southern trailer trash and Connecticut debutante. Jason Gilbert, as the outsider Titus, ranges from quiet observation to over-the-top Greek tragedy (quite literally -- this must be seen to be believed). Nancy Robinette is simply amazing as Claude, who has to be far more crazy than any of her patients on the therapist's couch. Deb Gottesman's Polly is talkative, neurotic, and funny. Christopher Lane, as Seth, provides an imposing physical presence. Kimberly Schraf's Sig, the most outwardly "successful" of the bunch, exposes her own demons. And Noah, played by John Dow, is philosophical, introspective, and "normal" in his own way -- at peace with himself despite the tumult around him.

Freedomland pokes fun at pretentious art criticism (and artists, for that matter), at "back to nature" fanatics, at the militia movement, at ridiculous dissertation topics, and at foolish psychotherapeutic practices -- to name just a few contemporary topics assailed by Amy Freed. Every arrow hits its target.

Moving back 43 years, a comparison of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to Freedomland proves that Leo Tolstoy was right when he wrote in Anna Karenina that "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." At least in drama, this must be true. Conflict and dysfunction are critical to successful drama. Even so syrupy a family as The Brady Bunch has to have a conflict, no matter how trivial, in order to keep our attention for 23 minutes of situation comedy.

Granted, the problems of the Underfingers in Freedomland and Big Daddy's clan in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are much larger than the question of whether Marcia's new braces will keep her from going to the school dance. This may be why Tennessee Williams and Amy Freed are considered to be serious dramatists, despite the apparent humor of their plays, while Sherwood Schwartz and his writers are considered to be anything but.

All that aside, Arena's new artistic director, Molly Smith, has mounted a stunning production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Returning to the original script, as Williams intended it to be performed, without the changes thought necessary to make it more commercial by its first director, Elia Kazan, and without the bowdlerization of the movie made necessary by Hollywood's now-defunct (thankfully) production code, Smith has made an old and familiar play fresh and new.

The show has two stars, the lighting and sets by Pavel Dobrusky and a larger-than-life performance by Dion Anderson as Big Daddy (in a role that, a few years back, might have been performed by Arena's own Robert Prosky, who was in the audience on opening night, before Hollywood stole him away from us and cast him in such dreck as Veronica's Closet). Although he does not appear until more than halfway through the first act, Anderson's Big Daddy dominates this play just has he dominates his 28,000-acre plantation in the Mississippi Delta. In a role that could be both lugubrious and overbearing, Anderson performs with remarkable subtlety and nuance. Big Daddy is a detestable person, but Anderson humanizes him almost to the point of admiration.

To compliment Dobrusky and Anderson for their efforts should not diminish the contributions of others in the cast and production staff. Megan Gallagher slinks around with self-righteous anger (and greed) as Margaret ("Maggie the Cat") while her husband, Brick (Peter Hermann) drinks himself into a stupor over the guilt he feels because of a better-left-forgotten homosexual affair with his now-deceased best friend, Skipper (who also slept with Brick's wife, Maggie, in an effort to prove his masculinity, and later drank himself to death). Much of the first act is devoted to what is essentially a monologue in which Maggie muses about the brokenness of her marriage and inquires as to why her studly husband refuses to sleep with her. (Confused about the connections? This play may require chalkboard diagrams to understand them.)

Brick's older brother, Gooper, a corporate attorney who by all normal standards would be the "successful sibling," is played stolidly by Lawrence Redmond. Why does the family so admire the ne'er-do-well Brick while ignoring the substantial accomplishments of Gooper? This is so emphasized that Big Mama at one point even refers to Brick as her "only son." No wonder that Gooper's fecund wife, Mae (Sarah Marshall, with remarkable restraint and understatement) is so properly concerned about her family's place in Big Daddy's still-unwritten will. Unfortunately, this obvious question is never answered -- except to leave the audience with the sense that Big Daddy's family has a misplaced sense of values.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a shining beginning to a promising new season at the Arena Stage.

The last play in this trio has nothing to do with families, but it does address our common humanity and asks questions about the brotherhood of man.

Long before Jerry Seinfeld and friends brought their "show about nothing" to NBC, Samuel Beckett wrote the ultimate "show about nothing" for the stage. Waiting for Godot, in fact, begins with the classic line, "Nothing to be done," and, indeed, nothing really happens. There is action, yes; but is there conflict? There is humor and there is pathos, but there is no movement, at least not in the sense of forward or linear direction with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Things happen, but we cannot be sure what these things are. And, once we get into the minds of the protagonists, Vladimir and Estragon, we cannot even be sure whether these things happened at all.

Waiting for Godot was originally conceived in minimalist terms, with four actors and a set consisting of nothing more than a barren tree. The set at the Studio Theatre by Russell Metheny is somewhat more complicated, but still pretty bare -- we are at a roadside, under a long-abandoned billboard, next to a pile of ashes. Old friends Vladimir and Estragon -- are they hoboes? slaves? escaped convicts? -- meet to discuss their (we soon learn) perpetual wait for the mysterious Godot, who may or may not rescue them from this oblivion. Godot must exist, because he sends messengers (a young boy played by Jonathan P. LeFlore) with word that he will come "tomorrow." But who is he?

In the course of this waiting, Vladimir (Thomas W. Jones II) and Estragon (Donald Griffin) encounter Pozzo (Michael Tolaydo, looking like a cross between Rod Steiger and Dennis Hopper) and his slave/servant/pet Lucky (Hugh Nees). Through these encounters, they begin to question their own existence and their relationships -- if any -- with other people.

Because Jones and Griffin are black and Tolaydo and Nees are white, it is possible to infer racial undertones in this production, ably directed by Joy Zinoman. But such an inference, or interpretation, is not necessary to understand either the play itself or these actors' rendering of it.

Waiting for Godot is the first in a series of plays celebrating each decade of the twentieth century, to be presented by the Studio Theatre over the next two seasons. It is a noble beginning to a fine effort.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Sondheim at 75 (Part Seven)

This review originally appeared in The Metro Herald in August 2002:

Passion: The Thin Line Between Love and Obsession
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

In lesser hands, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s 1994 musical play, Passion, might have looked like this:

Setting: A suburban high school in the present day.

Characters: A homely, sickly freshman girl who has a crush on the captain of the basketball team, who is dating the head cheerleader.

Plot: Homely girl follows the basketball captain everywhere, sends him e-mail messages dozens of times a day. Jock complains to his cheerleader girlfriend, who starts to doubt his sanity. Homely girl, meanwhile, has recorded wholly imagined, lurid stories about her and the basketball captain in her diary, which is discovered by her father. Father takes diary to the basketball coach, who benches the captain, denying him the scholarship he desires to go to Duke. Cheerleader abandons him for a football player, he ends up in a backwater junior college, and homely girl finds happiness among her collection of hand-blown glass animals.

Luckily for us, this musical was written not by the creative team that gave us Grease but by the team that gave us Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods. Instead of a mediocre romp among the nightmarish social milieu of the modern American high school, we have a profound and an intense psychological drama made by and for adults.

It is this adult drama we have now at the Kennedy Center, directed by Eric Schaeffer and starring Judy Kuhn, Rebecca Luker, and Michael Cerveris. It is an astounding production that shatters conventions.

For some reason, it is said that even Sondheim fans dislike Passion. This is incredible. No, better, it is incroyable (the French say it with so much more, well, passion). Austere in its way, yet highly complex both musically and lyrically, its plot and its individual musical numbers are built on a foundation that defies expectations. Still, its characters are built on recognizable “types” that could, as indicated, be transplanted to another, more mundane setting with little difficulty. It has soaring melodies, intense emotions, comic relief, colorful costumes, a stylized yet stark and naturalistic set design. I have to ask: What’s not to like?

Yes, Passion is a challenging show. If you come to the theatre to see a musical with expectations of being merely entertained, this is not the show for you. There are no song hits to whistle on your way back to the lobby. But the words and the music will nag at you for hours and days after the final curtain.

In its essence, Passion is a play about how emotions—in particular, love—are beyond our control, certainly beyond our reason. The song "Loving You (is not a choice)" expresses this most directly.

In a nutshell, Giorgio (Cerveris) is a decorated army captain in Italy in the 1860s. He is having an affair with the married Clara (Luker), whose name translates as “clear.” Ordered to a remote provincial base, Giorgio encounters Fosca (Kuhn), whose name translates as “foggy” or “dark.” Fosca is gaunt, thin, pallid, and asocial, literally a bundle of exposed nerve endings. The cousin of the commanding officer, she is the object of jokes for the other officers. She also falls obsessively in love with Giorgio, who, being the outsider, has shown some polite attention to her. She follows him everywhere, demanding that he love her with the same intensity as she loves him. He rejects her advances but eventually, without full comprehension of why, he succumbs.

On the surface, this could look like a message of hope to the obsessives among us: If you just stalk hard enough, the object of your desire will come around. But such a message does not hold up, because Fosca’s obsession, well-intentioned as it might be, holds the destructive force of a tornado.

Passion is an intimate show. The auditorium at the Eisenhower Theatre may be too large for it. (A companion who sat in the balcony at the same performance that I attended described the show to me in such a way that it seemed we saw two entirely different shows. People around him tittered and giggled at the kabuki-like grand gestures that, from a distance, looked comic and overdrawn. Those of us in the orchestra, closer to the stage, observed the earnest intensity of the players. There was no irony apparent, and we laughed only at those moments that were meant to be funny.)

Passion focuses on the minds and lives of three people; the other characters exist only to provide explanations, color, or commentary on the central action.

Schaeffer has succeeded in balancing the three sides of this triangle. There is no “stand-out” performance because the three principals are so evenly matched. This is so even though the character of Fosca has the potential of dominating the show, just as she comes to dominate the lives of Giorgio and Clara. Schaeffer has been careful to adjust Passion’s textures so that Giorgio, Clara, and Fosca are more-or-less equals in the final execution.

One way in which he does this is through the lighting design of Howell Binkley, who uses pinpoint spots to keep our attention focused on the principals, but in such a way that we recognize them as atomized individuals, who wish to be part of a larger (societal?) whole but whose lives are ultimately isolated.

Similarly, Derek McLane’s set design gives us plenty of space and air. Light flows through it in distinct shafts. The spaciousness creates a sense of aridity, intensifying the isolation the characters feel. (There is so much symbolism in the lighting and set design that it might require a college seminar to discuss it all. Let’s start with the ruins of the castle on the hill. . . .)

Two hours without intermission might seem like a long time to spend watching a musical play with no dancing girls, no comic secondary romantic duo, no crashing chandeliers or Marine helicopters. But the time goes by imperceptibly, so caught up are we in the story.

Passion is one of the few shows in the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Celebration that has not been nearly sold-out from the time the box office opened. Take advantage of this lapse of judgment by other theatre lovers and get tickets to the next available performance.

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Sondheim at 75 (Part Six)

This review appeared originally in The Metro Herald in August 2002:

Sondheim’s RSV:
Merrily We Roll Along at the Kennedy Center
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

In the early part of the last century, church leaders and theologians concluded that the venerable King James Version (KJV) of the Bible had become increasingly difficult to understand in the wake of changes in the English language since the sixteenth century. In addition, increased scholarship in biblical languages, archeology, history, and anthropology had provided insights necessary to produce a better translation from the original texts.

The effort to make such a translation resulted in what is now called the Revised Standard Version, or RSV. Never entirely accepted by some Christians, who continue to (literally) swear by the KJV, and not the only modern translation available (the New International Version, the Jerusalem Bible, and others have been published over the past 50 years), the RSV is, nonetheless, the standard reference Bible for scholars when they are not dealing in the original languages.

We have a similar situation facing us at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre, in the form of Merrily We Roll Along, a 1981 musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and George Furth (book). While the essence of the show remains the same as it was at the time of the Broadway premiere, tinkering over the years has made it sufficiently different that we can call this production Merrily We Roll Along: The Revised Standard Version.

More than 20 years on, it is hard to believe that the original production of Merrily We Roll Along was met with catcalls and mass walkouts between the acts, leading to a meager Broadway run of just 16 performances (preceded by six weeks of previews).

So few of us were able to see that first production that most of our familiarity with the show comes from the original cast album, recorded the day after the show closed, with its Hirschfeld artwork and photo of Stephen Sondheim on the cover. That recording reveals a rich score of, ironically, some of Sondheim’s most hummable melodies. The OCR quickly became a cult favorite, overtaking Anyone Can Whistle (Sondheim’s nine-performance, 1964 Broadway flop) as the most popular such recording among Sondheim fans.

I have seen various productions of Merrily over the years, starting with the first college production at The Catholic University in 1982, then the Arena Stage version in 1990 (twice, at the beginning and end of the run), followed by the Donmar Warehouse in February 2001, to the version here. I am led to one conclusion: The original Broadway production had to have failed because of Harold Prince’s direction.

I say this because the show works well with the changes wrought by Sondheim and Furth, which began at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse in 1985 (under the direction of James Lapine) and continuing through the aforementioned Arena Stage production (under the direction of Douglas Wager and featuring, among others in the cast, Victor Garber and David Garrison), adding further refinements for the Leicester Haymarket production of 1992, to the current production at the Kennedy Center (now directed by Christopher Ashley). Yet it also works when the script is closer to the original text and the staging is closer to Prince’s original conception, such as the 2000–2001 Donmar Warehouse version (directed by Michael Grandage), which won multiple Olivier awards (the London equivalent of the Tony®), including “best musical” and acting awards for Samantha Spiro and Daniel Evans.

Now Sondheim (I’m told) didn’t like that Donmar production. That’s his privilege, after all, especially since Donmar did not incorporate most of the changes that he sees as improvements. For my money, however, I’ll take that version over the substantially rewritten one we have this summer at the Kennedy Center.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For those not familiar with Merrily We Roll Along, the musical is based on a 1934 play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. That play follows, in reverse chronological order, the lives and careers of two friends, a playwright and a painter, starting with them cynical and corrupt, ending with them starry-eyed and unsullied. Thematically, the idea of a protagonist whose ideals are corrupted over time can be found in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Allegro (1948), which—it is said—is the show that Sondheim has been trying to rewrite and perfect his entire career.

That property was brought to Sondheim by producer-director Harold Prince, whose producing partner, Robert Griffith, had been in the cast of the Kaufman and Hart play as a young actor and whose wife, Judy, thought it would be a good vehicle for a youthful cast of actors and singers (including, potentially, the Princes’ teenage daughter).

Converting Kaufman and Hart’s playwright and painter into a composer and lyricist, Sondheim and librettist Furth (who also wrote Company) followed the conceit closely. Sondheim wrote the score “backwards” so that, for instance, reprises of numbers are heard first, before the full song is “introduced” and echoes and motifs precede our hearing of the main themes on which they are based.

The play focuses on the relationship of three friends—Franklin Shepard, a composer who has become a successful movie producer (Michael Hayden); his lyricist, Charley Kringas, who has become a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (Raúl Esparza, fresh from Sunday in the Park with George); and Mary Flynn (Miriam Shor), a struggling writer who becomes a best-selling author (of one book) and then a drama critic who is also a fat lush (don’t blame me; it’s in the script).

One of the flaws in the current, “official” version of Merrily is that it drops the framing device of two high-school graduation ceremonies.

In the original version, Franklin Shepard, age 43, has returned to his alma mater, Lake Forest High School, to deliver a commencement speech. As he addresses the graduates, his life begins to unfold before him in a series of flashbacks. The play ends with Frank and Charley’s own graduation 25 years earlier. Musically, the anthem “The Hills of Tomorrow” (now excised from the score) was sung with loose dissonance in the first scene and more tightly harmonized in the last scene, signifying Frank’s (and the world’s) corruption. (It helps to note, too, that “The Hills of Tomorrow” is harmonically related to “Good Thing Going”—but more about that song later.)

The play now begins with the “transition” music of the title song (asking, “How did you get there from here?”), and we’re thrown immediately into a party scene in the Hollywood Hills, featuring “That Frank,” which has replaced “Rich and Happy.” The difference between the songs is that “Rich and Happy” portrays the Hollywood crowd as hypocritical sycophants, while in “That Frank” they are mere sycophants. A loss of texture, no?

The next two scenes from the original have been compressed—one might say streamlined—into one. Whereas originally Mary had tricked Charley and Frank into meeting at a tony Beverly Hills restaurant in 1976 (four years “after” the opening scene in 1980), in hopes that they might reconcile after a disastrous 1973 TV interview, that scene disappears and we are thrown directly into that TV studio.

The problem with eliminating that intervening scene is that it diminishes the process of Frank and Charley’s feud. It cheats us from seeing the long(er) deterioration of their relationship. By 1981, Charley should have been a distant memory, albeit a former “old friend,” of Frank’s, if they have not, indeed, seen or talked to each other in all that time (almost a decade).

That TV interview is key, in many ways. First of all, it gives us the best musical nervous breakdown seen on stage since “Rose’s Turn” in Gypsy. And Raúl Esparza sings “Franklin Shepard, Inc.” magnificently. He is a pressure-cooker at work, a contained explosion staying rooted to his chair, while a lesser performer might give in to the temptation of sputtering and flailing his arms. A fine line between genius and madness, indeed. (A footnote: Esparza’s understudy is Washington-based actor Jason Gilbert, who was born to play the role of Charley. Given his previous performances in Freedomland at Woolly Mammoth and Lady in the Dark at American Century Theatre, Gilbert has the acting chops necessary to pull off controlled mania. Not to wish Raúl Esparza ill, but we deserve a chance to see Jason Gilbert as Charley Kringas someday—soon, if possible.)

And yet—and yet, despite Frank’s violent reaction to Charley’s public outburst about their professional and personal relationship, eight years “later” there are no visible signs that Frank’s public life or professional career have been adversely affected. In fact, if anything has caused Frank to suffer, it has been his second wife, Gussie, the Yoko Ono who broke up the Frank-Charley-Mary little band.

Gussie (Emily Skinner) is unadulterated ambition—lustful, cynical from the get-go, selfish, and boorish. She knocks people down and climbs over them to get to the top.

Many have thought that Frank is the villain in this piece, because he allows himself to be corrupted. Frank is no villain; he is the hero, a flawed protagonist who acknowledges and takes responsibility for his mistakes (or, as he puts it, his single mistake, repeated over and over, “never saying no”). Charley and Mary try to stand in Frank’s way as he decides to forge a path different from the one he—they—started out on. They are not heroes, but the hero’s misguided (and well-intentioned) friends. But Gussie—Gussie is the villainess, the one who would eat her own child if it meant a starring role in the movies. She is the seducer, the corruptor—perhaps not so much Yoko Ono as Lady Macbeth.

In any case, Gussie had precipitated Frank’s divorce from Beth (Anastasia Barzee), whom he had met while auditioning girl singers for a Greenwich Village revue in 1960. The wedding—and divorce—are accompanied by one of Sondheim’s loveliest love songs, the hauntingly lyrical “Not a Day Goes By.” Incredibly, however, the new version transfers the divorce reprise of the song from Frank to Beth, eliminating the poignancy of the moment and replacing it with banality.

Beth is “introduced” during what is perhaps Sondheim’s best musical scene, the “Opening Doors” sequence, which rivals the Bench Scene in Carousel (“If I Loved You”) as the best, most compact, not-a-word-wasted musical scenes in the history of theatre. It compresses into seven minutes two years of triple biography—tight exposition made all the more remarkable because it comes near the end of the show. (And now that “Our Time” has become the finale, “Opening Doors” is the 11 o’clock number that “Our Time” was meant to be in . . . oh, never mind.)

A word about “Good Thing Going”: This song is sung completely only once during the show, as an audition piece at a Manhattan cocktail party (where some of the guests are—gasp!—smoking marijuana! in 1962!). The song is a précis of the entire show. Lyrically, although it is meant to be a “love song,” it sums up the zeniths and nadirs of Frank and Charley’s friendship. Musically, its theme infests the entire score. It is “Frank’s theme” and, judging by it, it seems Frank made a good choice in becoming a film producer, because apparently he was able to write only one song. The melody of “Good Thing Going” is the basis of “The Hills of Tomorrow” (or is it the other way around?); it’s the arpeggio the orchestra plays when Charley is describing how Frank “goes” in “Franklin Shepard Inc.” It punctuates the “Opening Doors” sequence, and even has alternative lyrics as a novelty song: “Who wants to live in New York? . . . garbage cans clanging in the street,” etc. A quotation from Frank Sinatra’s recording of the song is played on the infamous TV show. It seems to be the “big hit” from Musical Husbands, Frank and Charley’s first Broadway musical (starring Gussie, in a cheesy “finale” that makes us wonder, “How did this awful show—Musical Husbands—become a hit?”). The effect is subtle, but becomes plain when one listens to the score frequently enough.

It needs to be said that, standing alone, at some other theatre in some other time, this Merrily would be seen as the apex of any season. Its performances are uniformly excellent. The set design by Derek McLane is creative and highly effective. Director Christopher Ashley has added some clever touches, such as having 10-year-old Justin Pereira (playing “Frank, Jr.”) sing the last transition number solo. Every element—casting, costumes, choreography, lighting, musical direction—is praiseworthy. Still, in comparison to the first three Kennedy Center Sondheim Celebration shows—Sweeney Todd, Company, and Sunday in the Park with George—it falls short. Yet artistic director Eric Schaeffer and his creative team have raised the bar abnormally high. Could we really expect, as has been the case so far, that each show would be incrementally better than the others? No, no, we couldn’t.

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