Sunday, June 24, 2007

Romeo & Beverly

As I strolled into Central Park tonight, the sun was beginning its descent. A gently breeze carried the unmistakable smell of summer grass (both kinds). In my bag, the perfect picnic -- duck liver pate, French ham, Swiss cheese, a crusty baguette, jars of cornichons and Maille mustard, a quart of fresh strawberries with a container of freshly whipped cream. [Okay, so I did learn a few things from my Ex, the Frog.]

All the elements of a perfect date were in place. I had the entire evening planned. We'd start with a romantic picnic in Central Park, just the two of us, before taking in "Romeo & Juliet" at the Delacorte Theatre, which was being presented tonight as part of the Public's annual "Shakespeare in the Park" series. The only thing missing was my date. I strolled deeper into the park, keeping a lookout and then, "Voila!" I saw her. Yes, "her."

Beverly and I have been friends for over three years, and for all intents and purposes and for lack of a better name, she has assumed the role of my "fag hag." Though she's not in love with the moniker, she often refers to herself in that way. A native New Yorker who will be 80 in September, Beverly lived in the West Village during the 50's, 60's, and early 70's; she's had a long list of boys before me, but is quite certain I'll be her last.

Beverly, who gets around in a motorized wheelchair, is what my grandmother would call a "big girl." She constantly mentions how "tall and sexy" she used to be, bemoaning the fact that, as she puts it, she's nothing but an "old fat lady in a wheelchair" now. I've learned how to roll my eyes convincingly and, although I never contradict her, I am able to insist she "stop it" because she's "boring me." That ends it immediately; Beverly "loathes the boring and stupid."

Despite her numerous physical ailments, she still manages to live alone in her Tribeca apartment with a home health aide assisting only a couple of hours a week. She leads a largely independent existence and I find her both courageous and remarkable. Don't get me wrong; she also tortures me, as only an old lady is capable, but I love her to death.

We actually take in a fair amount of opera and Broadway. And as a former actress [her high water mark being a bit part in a national tour of "Desire Under the Elms" with George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst], she has an appreciation for and an encyclopedic knowledge of every opera and show that's been presented in New York City in the last 60 years. She's forgotten more than I know, but is patient and generous in sharing her memories.

And a date, after all, by any other name, is still a date. So, during this low-interest-in-dating period of mine [Note: I didn't say sex; please don't think I meant sex.], we're spending a lot of time together. The pricing for handicap seating (and tickets for those accompanying them) is incredible and she often reminds me that I'm only getting in for cheap because of her.

This season's production of "Romeo & Juliet," directed by Michael Greif, and featuring Lauren Ambrose from "Six Feet Under" (Juliet) , Oscar Isaac (Romeo), Camryn Manheim from "The Practice" (Nurse) and Austin Pendleton (Friar Laurence) was a mixed bag.

There must be a lot of pressure when mounting a production as known and loved as "Romeo & Juliet." Pressure to stay true to the text, to push the envelope, to make it relevant today, to respect the context in which it was written, blah, blah, blah. And pressure is often the catalyst for both the dreadful and delightful.

The dreadful in this production, takes the form of a huge puddle. By "huge," I mean the entire size of the circular stage, less the three-foot plank walkway that surrounds it. In addition to the circular walkway, the only place to stand that ain't wet is on the black metal pipe, stairlike structure, that morphs, as needed, and traverses what must be called "Lake Verona." Try as I might, I just didn't get it. Not even for a second. It was so distracting (i.e., "Are those actors freezing?", "Is she wearing shoes?", "How deep is it there?"). Beverly "was not amused." And while we're discussing the dreadful, the costuming was inconsistent and confusing. Sometimes I thought it was the 1920's, sometimes the 1940's, sometimes I had no idea at all.

The delightful presents in heart-stopping moments of superb acting. Michael Cristofer gives us a complex, multi-layered "Lord Capulet" from the moment he first hits the stage. Midway through the second act, he crescendoes, almost literally reaching out, grabbing the entire audience, squeezing them into a tiny ball and shoving them in his pocket as storms off the stage. The scene begins as Lord Capulet is informed by his wife and daughter that Juliet doesn't want to marry Paris three days hence. The snarling rage of his response, and the reactions of the women, leaves you certain that he has beat both women in the past. No words or actual physical contacts allude to it, but you know. I was left with goosebumps.

Ms. Ambrose does an above-average Juliet, altough she comes across as a bit too sexually savvy (and dare I say, hungry) for a 14 year old girl. If it were staged in modern times, it would seem more believable. And our Romeo, Mr. Isaac, gets high marks overall. As Nurse, Manheim, chews the scenery with too much gusto, too often for my taste. But her scenes with Mercutio [brilliantly played in every scene by Christopher Evan Welch (when can we move beyond these three-named actors?)] are priceless. Finally, Austin Pendleton, as always, shines. He is one of our little New York treasures and I could watch him read the back of a cereal box and be delighted.

I was most proud of the restraint I showed during Juliet's balcony scene as she was lamenting, "Oh Romeo, Romeo. Wherefore art thou, Romeo?" I so wanted to scream, "He ain't out there honey. Believe me, I've looked and he ain't out there."

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