Film

Salinger: a sensationalized doc and its secretive subject

I finally got round to watching Shane Salerno’s Salinger documentary, more than a year after its theatrical release—although as good a time as any, given that J.D. Salinger’s posthumous works are reportedly due to start appearing in 2015. Salinger would have hated Salerno’s film, and not just because it deals with aspects of a private life that Salinger took great pains to keep hidden. Salerno (a screenwriter whose distinguished credits include Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem) also resorts to the very sort of Hollywood histrionics that The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield found exasperating and—of course—“phony.”

Faced with just a handful of Salinger photographs and a few scraps of silent film and video—never mind a lack of any recorded Salinger interviews—Salerno does his damnedest to tart up the movie with dramatic imagery, an overwrought soundtrack score and a slew of interview fragments of impressive breadth but varying interest. (Do we really care what Martin Sheen thinks of Catcher in the Rye?) I don’t know what is more annoying: the silly filler scenes of a tall, dark, chain-smoking figure tapping away on a manual typewriter; or Salerno’s showy splicing together of two Joyce Maynard interviews, to the point where Maynard begins a sentence in one of them and finishes it in the other.

Salerno takes the mosaic approach to editing, using tiny shards that provide bright, trite sound bites but very little context—replete with the obligatory shots of interviewees breaking into tears that are used here shamelessly for effect. The film reaches its nadir in a lurid sequence about John Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman, who claimed he killed Lennon under the influence of Catcher in the Rye. There is nothing in Salinger’s novel that exhorts unhappy young people to murder celebrities, any more than there are messages in The Beatles’ White Album to do the same—unless, of course, you’re a psychotic like Chapman or Charles Manson. But what’s offensive isn’t that Salerno includes this questionable evidence of Catcher’s powerful influence, it’s that he makes so much of it.

So, not a great film—just a step above an A&E Biography—and not especially revelatory to anyone who is a dedicated Salinger fan. On the other hand, if you can tolerate its inane sensationalism, it’s not a bad introduction to the man and the legend that has grown up around him. It should be noted, too, that this documentary is a companion piece to a biography by David Shields and Salerno that I have not read but which presumably has more depth and context.

The film’s one significant reveal comes right at the end: a list of previously unpublished Salinger works allegedly to be released starting sometime next year. It’s long been known that Salinger continued writing after he stopped publishing, in 1965—Maynard and his daughter Margaret Salinger both mention his stash of manuscripts in their memoirs. Now, finally, we’ll get to read that writing. And the thought of it fills me with dread.

That’s because Salinger’s last published story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” is one of the worst things ever written by a major author.

Even as a kid, reading Salinger for the first time, I sensed that he was going off the rails with his penultimate published story, the prolix, sprawling “Seymour: An Introduction.” That could, however, be put down to the narrator, Buddy Glass, the younger brother and chief hagiographer of the saintly poet, mystic, genius and suicide Seymour Glass. In Salinger’s previous Seymour tale, the brilliant “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” the character was still of this earth—though definitely strange and troubled. By the time of “Seymour: An Introduction,” the most extensive and detailed of the Glass Family stories, he was on his way to becoming some kind of avatar, Krishna in the body of a quiz-show whiz kid. But perhaps that was just the excessive hero-worship of Buddy, who sounds very much like the Salinger of that time, a cranky lone wolf writing increasingly inward and knotty prose in a concrete bunker in the backwoods of New Hampshire. (Actually, if memory serves, Salinger wrote at least some of the story in the New Yorker offices.)

With “Hapworth 16, 1924,” however, Buddy is no longer the mediator and for the first time we get an extensive piece of writing by the great Seymour himself. It’s a novella-length letter, written at summer camp when Seymour is seven years old, and I don’t know where to begin to describe its awfulness. It’s astounding that the writer who created Holden Caulfield, possibly literature’s most identified-with teenager, could have gone on to conceive a child genius who is so insufferably precious, gratingly logorrheic, obnoxiously (and sexually) precocious, and completely and utterly unconvincing as this one. After all of Buddy’s worshipful build-up, the boy that emerges in the letter is a monstrosity—or would be, if you could actually believe in him. By the time Seymour ends the letter with a massive list of books he wants his parents to have sent to him for summer reading or re-reading—starting with the complete works of Tolstoy, and including all of Proust, in French—you’re convinced the whole story is some colossal bad joke. If Salinger had wanted to burn his boats before ceasing to publish, he certainly succeeded.

So I cringe at the news that among the posthumous Salinger publications will be five new Glass stories. If they continue along the line of “Hapworth,” they will be dire indeed. However, considering that “Hapworth” has never appeared in book form and—until the internet—only existed in a back-issue of The New Yorker (June 19, 1965), it’s possible Salinger regretted it himself. I like to think that in his meta-fictional world, he might excuse it as a counterfeit—the product of an increasingly deranged Buddy Glass, hell-bent on proving his brother’s superhuman intellect and supernatural powers. (Buddy, in an opening note, claims to have transcribed the letter and also appears in the story as a slightly less impressive prodigy—a preschooler absorbed in reading Charlotte Brontë’s Villette.) This artistic misstep could be dismissed as an embarrassing bit of Apocrypha in the Glass Family Gospel. It would be lovely if Salinger had turned back and continued along the lines of “Raise High” and its predecessors, “Franny” and “Zooey.” Like so many Salinger fans, I can read those stories over and over. I have to hold my nose before dipping back into “Hapworth.”

The posthumous works I’m most eager to read are the ones stemming from Salinger’s shattering Second World War experiences. There is apparently a novella based on his stint as a counterintelligence agent in Germany immediately after the war, as well as a novel inspired by his brief first marriage to Sylvia Welter, the young German he met there. These will be the first substantial works, apart from Nine Stories’ “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” in which Salinger draws on his time serving in Europe.

The rest of the posthumous trove is pretty much what we imagined Salinger might be writing: apart from completing the Glass chronicles, it seems he revisited and reworked his early Holden Caulfield stories, and also wrote a guide to Vedanta, the Hindu philosophy whose influence permeates his later Glass works and probably inspired the author’s monk-like existence post-Catcher. (Whatever his motives, I’ve always admired his stubborn refusal to play the fame game.) There seem to be few surprises in store as far as content is concerned; it’s only the quality that remains a nail-biting mystery. But among his final directives, Salinger did make sure that there’s one thing we’ll never see. Though he couldn’t prevent cheesy documentaries like Salerno’s, he did reiterate that The Catcher in the Rye can never be made into a movie. So there.

Photo: J.D. Salinger’s first published book and his last… so far.

© 2014 Martin Morrow

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Theatre

Time on his side: Seelig stages Ubu-clever Rob Ford satire

With topical satire, timing is everything, and the timing couldn’t have been better for Friday’s opening of Ubu Mayor. The One Little Goat Theatre Company unleashed its sharp-witted Rob Ford spoof on the evening of the day Ford bowed out of the Toronto mayoral race and big brother Doug took his place—making the show, which focuses on the dynamic between the Ford sibs, all the more relevant.

As I made my way to the Wychwood Barns, where the play is being presented, I was listening on the radio to Doug Ford’s press conference in which he announced his candidacy and talked about the Ford clan’s strong bonds. A couple of hours later, at the close of Ubu Mayor, I was watching Doug, Rob and Rob’s wife, Renata—or rather, their satirical alter egos Dudu, Ubu and Huhu—ironically extolling the “tight-knit family.”

This tight-knit family, as portrayed by playwright Adam Seelig, is one rife with incest, drug abuse, bacon fetishes and Machiavellian schemes.

Seelig has rewritten—to put it mildly—Alfred Jarry’s rude’n’crude classic Ubu Roi to tear a strip off the Fords. Anyone who has read or seen Jarry’s anarchic 1896 play—partly a grotesque parody of Shakespearean tragedy—will barely recognize it here. And, at least in the beginning, you also won’t recognize the Rob Ford figure conceived by Seelig and played delightfully by Richard Harte.

Jarry’s Père Ubu is an obese, greedy, buffoonish tyrant, and one could see how he might be easily repurposed to mock Rob Ford. (Indeed, I remember seeing a hilarious version in Calgary in the 1990s that used the play to lampoon then-Alberta premier Ralph Klein, also a man of many appetites.) However, the Ubu that Seelig gives us, embodied by a cherubic but physically fit Harte, is a bike-riding, arugula-eating, Nietzsche-reading sort of guy, the kind that insists on referring to his wife as his “spouse.” He seems to belong in a Queen West condo, not in suburban Etobicoke.

Harte, who is Irish and sports a winning smile, actually looks more like a Kennedy than a Ford. And his Ubu’s intellectual aspirations bug the hell out of brother Dudu (Michael Dufays), an obscenity-spewing, power-mad bully. Dudu, self-described puppet master, is in cahoots with Huhu (the ubiquitous Astrid Van Wieren) to keep a tight rein on Ubu and make sure he follows their political agenda. But now his kid brother is talking about becoming an Übermensch and a spiritual leader, which calls for drastic action.

To get Ubu back on track, Dudu and Huhu cook up a plot to embroil him in a drugs-and-sex scandal that will bring the Superman down to earth and re-cast him as a flawed man of the people.

Seelig’s script is most often an oblique, not to say nominal, satire of the Fords. Ubu gets hooked on cocaine, but not specifically crack. He sees a therapist, but there’s no stint in rehab. And, taking his cue from Jarry’s sequel Ubu Cocu (Ubu Cuckolded), Seelig’s Dudu and Huhu have an affair—one scandal that has yet to emerge from the Ford saga. Actually, “affair” is too polite a term: Ubu Mayor opens with Dudu going down on Huhu on a living-room couch, and throughout the rest of the 90-minute show this horndog of a brother-in-law can barely keep his hands—and tongue—off her.

The obliquity may actually be Seelig’s wisest choice. Rob Ford’s current illness has even his biggest detractors speaking of him in a softer tone, so any too-direct satire might, at the moment, look like kicking the mayor while he’s down. Rob as a fugitive from Portlandia, and his brother and wife as adulterous lovers, might be just enough of a farfetched scenario to fool you into thinking this is not the Fords’ story.

That is, until you get to the songs. Composed by Seelig (who also directed the show and plays piano in its onstage musical trio), these are witty R&B pastiches that riff on notorious Ford statements and behaviour. One is built around the refrain “Plenty to eat at home.” Another is a blues-rock anthem to “Etobicocaine,” complete with Harte’s Ubu making like Eric Clapton on an electric guitar.

Harte, Dufays and Van Wieren really sell the songs, negotiating the tongue-twisting lyrics like cyclists weaving through downtown traffic. They also throw themselves into the crude, farcical plot, which has Huhu impersonating a French hooker with an accent as slippery as K-Y Jelly and crass Dudu pretending to be a sensitive female therapist. Such are their manic exertions that all three actor-singers were glistening with sweat by the time the performance came to its abrupt end.

But getting back to timing: will Ubu Mayor be able to draw an audience right now? With Rob Ford in the hospital, awaiting the results of a biopsy on the tumour in his abdomen, people may not be in the mood to laugh at him. Then again, One Little Goat’s show is much nastier to the Doug Ford figure, who is painted as the devious, scheming power-behind-the-throne. With Doug in the race now, Torontonians will be scrutinizing him as never before, questioning his own political ambitions. Already the focus is beginning to shift. The top headline on The Globe and Mail’s website Saturday morning: “Doug Ford running for mayor was long-time backup plan: sources.” Ubu Mayor may indeed be the right play at the right time.

Basketball jones: They’re shooting hoops and baring souls at the Theatre Centre these days. In Monday Nights, by 6th Man Collective, five young actors recapture the summer of 2008, when they gathered faithfully on the first night of the work week to play basketball down by the lake. It’s a participatory piece of theatre in which the audience breaks up into teams and the actors coach them on the rudiments of the sport. So, while we listen to revelatory monologues by the guys (some via headsets), we also get to practise our dribbling, passing and slam dunks. The writing, though heartfelt, is weak; but the basketball drills are a lot of fun. By the end, the collective has got its simple point across: that team sports are an exhilarating means of escape.

Ubu Mayor runs to Sept. 21. www.onelittlegoat.org

Monday Nights runs to Sept. 20. www.theatrecentre.org

Photo: Ubu Mayor stars (left to right) Astrid Van Wieren, Richard Harte and Michael Dufays. (Photo courtesy of One Little Goat)

© 2014 Martin Morrow

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Theatre

Alzheimer’s play proves Rosa Labordé’s aim is True

Most of us dread the thought of losing our memory, but there are always a few recollections we’d be happy to erase. (Personally, I’d love to forget I ever saw Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie.) In the, ahem, memorable 2004 film The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman posited a scientific means of obliterating unhappy memories. In Rosa Labordé’s gripping new play True, a New Age-y musician and recovering addict named Franco keeps attempting the same thing in a more low-tech way—with therapeutic rituals meant to clear the air and bury the past. He’s also a fan of the “re-do.” When a situation gets tense or ugly, he tries to rewind the action and start again on a better tack.

By the end of this short but emotionally and intellectually packed drama, Labordé uses the re-do herself, to heartbreaking effect.

True, first produced this summer for the Toronto Fringe, is, as I write, back for an encore run at its original site-specific venue, the Citizenry Café on Queen Street West. In the play, the venue stands in for a family-run café-cum-clothing store. Marie, also an ex-addict, and husband Franco manage the (non-alcoholic) bar up front; Marie’s younger sister Anita sells apparel in the back; and older sis Cece adorns the premises with her ikebana floral arrangements. (I guess you’ve got to diversify to afford those Queen West rents.)

Where Franco is into forgetting the past, Marie is the opposite: she’s the sort of person who boycotts all things Italian just because she was once flashed by a pervert at Rome’s Fontana di Trevi and the authorities did nothing about it. But the three sisters share far more dreadful memories, which are dredged up when their estranged father Roy comes wandering into the place after-hours.

Roy, benign and bewildered—and played by Layne Coleman with startling authenticity—is now a victim of Alzheimer’s. He enters wearing pyjamas under his coat and clutching a handwritten note of unknown authorship, which scolds his daughters for abandoning their father. Due to his decaying memory, his conversation runs in loops, the same observations and questions recurring again and again. Most painful is his repeated query about Cece’s odd brain-injury-related speech impairment and how she acquired it.

What do you do with a dad who was an alcoholic, a philanderer and physically abusive? Should his children continue to shut him out of their lives now that he’s ailing and helpless? Marie abhors him, Cece still seems traumatized by him, but Anita—who, as the youngest, probably remembers him the least—is inclined to pity him and invite him to dinner. Franco, who has never met Roy, finds him likable, in part because the old man shares his love of music.

As the sisters argue, Labordé inserts flashbacks to their most horrifying memory of their father, replayed three times from each of their three slightly different perspectives. But the playwright is interested in more than just the vagaries and fragilities of memory; her characters also make allusions to parallel universes and alternate realities, those concepts beloved of theoretical physicists and science-fiction writers. It may put you in mind of John Mighton’s haunting 1990 play Possible Worlds, which will be getting a much-deserved revival at the Stratford Festival next year.

And speaking of Stratford, it’s impossible to watch True without also thinking of the festival’s current headline show, King Lear. Labordé’s play could, in fact, be an alternate-reality Lear, in which the addled father is more sinning than sinned against, while his daughters have good cause to defy him—although Anita, the Cordelia figure, still shows compassion.

Not to compare apples and oranges, but I found Coleman’s Lear-like Roy more moving than Colm Feore’s bravura portrayal of the mad king in Stratford’s production. His Roy is funny (insofar as dementia can be considered amusing), pathetic and, in the flashbacks, frightening. But as much as he may be despised, it is clear he is already paying for his past behaviour in the moments when he tries desperately to grasp at the memories flitting through the ruins of his crumbling mind.

Coleman is a fixture of the Toronto theatre community (he’s a past artistic director of Theatre Passe Muraille), who was most recently seen last year as a snarky aging hipster in Linda Griffiths’ Heaven Above Heaven Below. His program note says he’s received four Dora nominations for acting; while it’s pretty early in the season to be thinking about awards, his performance here ought to net him a fifth.

Ingrid Rae Doucet, Sabrina Grdevich and Shannon Taylor provide both striking contrasts and a convincing sibling dynamic as the three sisters. Grdevich’s forceful Marie is the extremist, whose treatment of Roy comes close to cruelty when she decides to play along with his delusion that she is her late mother. Taylor’s sweet Anita is the moderate one. Between them, Doucet’s damaged Cece looks as delicate as her flower arrangements and, despite her stammer, says much with her injured-animal eyes. Scott McCord is appealing as the weak-willed and slightly flaky Franco, who seems at his happiest banging out rock ballads on the piano.

Labordé has directed her own play, making the most of the café’s long, narrow space by having the majority of the action occur near the bar up front, virtually in our faces, while characters retreat and cool down in the “upstage” clothing store and on a back patio that effectively becomes a backdrop. Trevor Schwellnus’s abrupt shifts in lighting and Thomas Ryder-Payne’s ominous sound design catapult us into the family’s traumatic past.

The Toronto-based Labordé first grabbed attention in 2006 with her Tarragon Theatre hit Léo, a play set in Allende-era Chile, which made the GG shortlist and went on to be produced nationally. I haven’t seen her subsequent work, apart from Marine Life (SummerWorks 2012), which was disappointing. True has some weak spots and a loose thread or two, but with this ambitious and thought-provoking take on the “memory play” Labordé proves that she’s still a writer to be reckoned with.

True runs to Sept. 13. www.criminaltheatre.com

Photo: True stars (left to right) Ingrid Rae Doucet, Shannon Taylor, Layne Coleman, Sabrina Grdevich and Scott McCord. (Photo courtesy of Criminal Theatre)

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Theatre

Now and Glenn: Soulpepper reinvigorates Glenn Gould play

With his aquiline profile and an amorphous body that at times seems to have been de-boned, Diego Matamoros would appear to be the perfect actor for Soulpepper Theatre’s revival of Glenn, David Young’s play about Glenn Gould. As it happens, however, Matamoros is occupied elsewhere at Soulpepper right now, playing a Tartuffe as greasy as a Scottish breakfast. Instead, Gould, Canada’s favourite eccentric musical genius, is portrayed by Brent Carver. And Jeff Lillico. And Mike Ross. And Steven Sutcliffe. For Glenn, if you’re not familiar with it, gives us four aspects of the man, at four stages in his life, interacting with one another à la Michel Tremblay’s Albertine, en cinq temps.

And while none of those four actors alone would be an ideal embodiment of Gould, together they do indeed catch different facets of the man. The perpetually boyish Lillico, with a mop of black hair, is the intense, fervent young Gould captured in the famous photos on the album cover of the pianist’s landmark 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. (Blown-up reproductions of which can be seen on the side walls of the Michael Young Theatre.) Ross’s Glenn, looking sweaty and uncomfortable in de rigueur black tie and tails, makes palpable the anxieties of Gould the concert performer. Sutcliffe, prickly and driven, is Gould the recording-studio perfectionist, while Carver brings the mellow wisdom of those twinkling eyes of his to the aging, ailing but still ecstatically visionary artist.

And Young is primarily concerned with Gould the artist. His engagingly cerebral play—first produced by Necessary Angel in 1992—is an homage to the musician’s passion for the intricacies of structure, written as a string of 32 short scenes that parallel the aria and variations of the Goldberg. Gould’s many quirks—his hypochondria, his hyper-sensitivity to cold, his strange posture at the keyboard, his reclusiveness—are seen largely from the man’s own viewpoint as necessities for his artistic endeavours. We get glimpses of his domestic life and personal relationships only as they relate to his work.

Gould’s idiosyncrasies, in fact, aren’t much next to what we’ve come to expect from pop musicians. The controversy over his playing style—hunched at eye-level with the keys, singing and humming to himself—his experiments with tempi, his editing-together of multiple performances to achieve a perfect rendering in the studio… all this can only be seen as radical now in the context of how rigidly conservative the classical music scene was in the mid-20th century. Indeed, Gould kicked open the door for later flamboyant shit-disturbers like Nigel Kennedy. You need that historical perspective to understand why Gould’s playing Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor at an unconventionally stately tempo would seem so outrageous. (John Roberts, Gould’s close friend and collaborator, once described to me how an impish Gould revealed his plans for playing the concerto’s first movement at half-speed as if he were about to commit a singular act of mischief.) Or why Gould’s fondness for pop singers Barbra Streisand and Petula Clark came across as a “serious” musician’s endearing weakness.

Young’s play has been revived numerous times, including at the Stratford Festival in 1999. I hadn’t seen Glenn since 2006, when a Calgary group called the Blacklist Theatre Project did a very fine production, directed by Kevin McKendrick. There are some vivid touches in Diana Leblanc’s vigorous new staging for Soulpepper. Most striking is a scene where Ross’s Glenn, the star performer, bows endlessly before an ecstatic audience, while the other Glenns pelt him with roses until, with the help of Michael Walton’s superb lighting, it begins to look like he’s standing in a shower of blood. It’s a moment that boldly underscores Gould’s disgusted descriptions of performing and competing in the classical arena as “gladiatorial” and a “blood sport.”

Of the four Glenns, I was the least satisfied with—or perhaps, the most irritated by—Sutcliffe as the anal, game-playing control freak. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed the actor’s flavorful impersonations of a coarse New York recording engineer and that formidable Austrian conductor, Herbert von Karajan. It should be noted that none of the four cast members plays—or even pretends to play—piano onstage; their mimed “performances” consist merely of imitating Gould’s habits of crossing his legs and conducting the music as he played. Gould’s recordings, however, are ever-present in Paul Humphrey’s sound design.

Instead of using piano keys as a visual theme—the most obvious choice, and one employed in the Calgary production—Martha Mann’s décor is all about seating. Quite appropriate, given Gould’s fanatical insistence on using his own specially constructed short-legged chair when performing. Said chair figures at centrestage, while two park benches flank the set—one of them complete with an imitation of Ruth Abernethy’s beloved bronze Gould sculpture, which sits outside the Glenn Gould Studio at CBC’s Front Street headquarters. Needless to say, Mann’s costumes predominantly consist of the ivy cap, scarf, long coat and fingerless gloves—reproduced here in quadruplicate—that became Gould’s signature getup. Again, hardly eccentric in the age of Lady Gaga.

What impressed me most about Young’s Glenn this time round was the way the playwright attempts to get inside Gould’s brain and illuminate, not just his oddities, but his purity of purpose. His Gould is an artist-hero in the same way as Gould’s own hero, Kafka—one who sets out bravely and stubbornly on an often-lonely quest for transcendence through art.

Glenn runs to Oct. 1. www.soulpepper.ca

Photo: Actors (left to right) Mike Ross, Brent Carver, Steven Sutcliffe and (front) Jeff Lillico portray facets of pianist Glenn Gould in Soulpepper Theatre’s revival of David Young’s Glenn, at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts. (Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

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