Monthly Archives: October 2017

“FALSETTOS”— Live from Lincoln Center

“Falsettos”

Live From Lincoln Center

Amos Lassen

William Finn’s “Falsettos” is the story of Marvin who leaves his wife and young son to be with another man named Whizzer. Marvin fantasized that they can all be one happy family but his dream is shattered when he is diagnosed with AIDS. Set in 1992, an AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence and it was a time when violence against gay men and lesbian women was rabid in certain precincts. This is a story that touches every one deeply and although it starts out on a happy note, it ends on a very sad one.

The musical was originally produced in separate installments which would eventually make up the first and second acts of the combined show: “March of the Falsettos” at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis when Marvin has left his wife, Trina, for a man, Whizzer. This left Jason, his son, confused and moody. The second act, “Falsettoland”, was originally produced in 1990, and the pall that AIDS had cast over the intervening decade in the background. The characters and their sense of family now face devastating reality.

We sense the weight of the history of the gay community, of New York City, of the American sense of family and individuality as the musical moves forward. The tragedies of the second act hit us hard since we had already fallen in love with the characters in Act 1. When we consider how selfish and neurotic and self-obsessed the characters are, we wonder where this love comes from. Yet there’s a charm to everyone from Trina holding onto her sanity to Marvin and Whizzer’s combative yet deeply sexy chemistry.

The original production won Finn two Tony Awards, for Best Original Score, and Best Book of a Musical. This production has a wonderful cast that includes two-time Tony winner Christian Borle as Marvin; Stephanie J. Block as Trina; Andrew Rannells as Whizzer; Brandon Uranowitz as Mendel, the shrink who Trina later marries. All four received Tony nominations. Yes, there are many clichés here but we still laugh and cry all the way through.

“SCAFFOLDING”— Torn Between Two Worlds

 

“Scaffolding”

Torn Between Two Worlds

Amos Lassen

17-year- old ASHER has always been an impulsive troublemaker. It’s hard for him to concentrate in class, and he is filled of rage and violence. He also has a lot of charm and street wisdom. His strict father sees him as a natural successor to the family’s scaffolding business but Asher finds a different masculine role model in his gentle literature teacher Rami and has a special connection with him. Asher is torn between the two worlds and looks for a chance for a new life and new identity. Then a sudden tragedy takes place and he has to take the ultimate test of maturity.

Director Matan Yair had once been a teacher who believed that he could inspire his pupils by letting them follow their own path of self-discovery. One of his students was Asher who was the inspiration for this film.

Asher (Asher Lax) doesn’t care much for education and makes little effort to prepare for his final exams. Besides being a student, he helps his father Milo (Yaacov Cohen) with his scaffolding business. Since Milo thinks that his son will take over the company one day, Asher doesn’t believe that he has any options for a different life available. But everything changes when Rami (Ami Smolartchik), a literature teacher, becomes his mentor and a role model. He helps Asher with his studies, and shows Asher that he has other options in life aside from his father’s business. Although the teacher gives it his all, he himself is also lost. One day, Rami suddenly disappears from the students’ lives and leaves them with nothing but anger and sadness. Asher has to decide if he will continue with what he has already set out to do and if it will give him enough inner confidence to try to find happiness and fulfillment.

This is a sincere and compelling portrait of a young man’s self-discovery. It is also an allegory for Asher’s life. Asher Lax gives an incredible performance and this is first shot at acting. Ami Smolartchik’s Rami is an honest, heartening performance. This Israeli-Polish co-production is a finely woven production with a profound ending.

“THE BOY DOWNSTAIRS”— Young Love

 

“The Boy Downstairs”

Young Love

Amos Lassen

Diana is forced to reflect on her first relationship when she inadvertently moves into her ex boyfriend’s apartment building. She has just returned to New York after living in London for the last four years. Finding an apartment in the city can be a nightmare, so when Diana finds the seemingly perfect place, but unfortunately, after moving in, she discovers her ex boyfriend Ben (Matthew Shear) is her downstairs neighbor. We see that the two still have feelings for one another making this an interesting living situation.

Diana is an aspiring writer who works in a bridal shop to pay the bills, and in her spare time, she helps out her landlord, a retired actress (Deirdre O’Connell). Although she tries to use all these things as distractions, she can’t help but think Ben, despite her constant denial regarding the feelings she has for him. Ben has attempted to move on with his life and is dating a bitchy realtor who quickly sees the attraction between Ben and Diana and does her best to stop a reconnection from happening. Throughout the film, Diana looks for sage advice from her best friend Gabby (Diana Irvine) who has relationship troubles of her own.

Writer/director Sophie Brooks gives us a light, enjoyable romantic comedy that is a well-scripted, well-performed film. We see the magic and awkwardness of New York love through a strong dry humor and quirkiness. The screenplay is sharp, gritty, and real.

The best thing about the film is that aside from being a cute and engaging love story, it is sympathetic to audiences. It’s difficult thing to revisit past feelings, and Diana and Ben have a vulnerability that is very relatable.

“The Story of the Jews Volume Two: Belonging: 1492-1900” by Simon Shama— An Epic History

Schama, Simon. “The Story of the Jews Volume Two: Belonging: 1492-1900”, Ecco Books, 2017.

An Epic History

Amos Lassen

This is Simon Schama’s second volume of his illustrated cultural history of the Jewish people. In the first volume, we realized that this is the story of endurance against destruction and it shows the

creativity of the Jews as they faced oppression and affirmed life even dealing with terrible issues. The story of the Jews spans and we read the

philosophical musings of Spinoza and poetry written on slips of paper in concentration camps. We go into detail about the Enlightenment and we see the Diaspora that transforms a country. We meet Freud and see his place in our history. a Viennese psychiatrist forever changes the conception of the human mind.

This is, however, not the story of a people apart but rather the story of a Jewish culture totally immersed in and imprinted by the peoples among whom they have lived making this the story of all of us.

Schama gives us 24 pages of color photos, numerous maps, and printed endpapers. We sense the author’s pride in his people. Schama gives us a new way of reading history and even though the book is quite thick (790 pages), it reads easily and quickly.

“A Heart Well Traveled – Vol. 2: Tales of Erotica, Fantasy and Sci-Fi Love Affairs and Unlikely Outcomes” edited by Sallyanne Monti— Fourteen Unique and Compelling Stories

Monti, Sallyanne (editor). “A Heart Well Traveled – Vol. 2: Tales of Erotica, Fantasy and Sci-Fi Love Affairs and Unlikely Outcomes”, Sapphire Books, 2017.

Fourteen Unique and Compelling Stories

Amos Lassen

Sallyanne Monti’s collection of short stories take us into the supernatural and allows us to escape into unknown territories We have a plethora of different styles of erotica, science fiction and fantasy and while personally this is not the kind of literature I usually read, I was taken away to places I have never been to read about new situations and it was great fun. I realized long ago when I first began reviewing that anthologies by several authors are the most difficult books to review because there are really only two options. I can say something about each story or I can review the work as a whole. If I tried to say something about each of the fourteen stories here this review would be way too long and to difficult to manage so I have decided to look at the collection as a whole.

For any anthology to be successful it must have variety and diversity and we certainly have these here. Below is a list of the stories and their authors:

  1. Living in Her Memories by Vickie L. Adams
  2. Crossroads by Shannon M. Harris
  3. The New Muse by T.L. Hayes
  4. If The Time is Right, Do It Over Skype by Lisa Blush
  5. Peter Brady by Sallyanne Monti
  6. The Daughter of War by K.A. Masters
  7. The Encounter by Sandy Duggar
  8. Who’s Afraid Of The Pink Fairy by Gabriela Martins
  9. Perchance to Dream by Lea Daley
  10. The Pull by Tara Wentz
  11. Pouncing by Genta Sebastian
  12. The Real Thing by L.K. Early
  13. The Most Powerful Connection by Katelyn Cameron
  14. Geekily Yours by Samantha Luce

“Crimes of the Father” by Thomas Keneally— Sin and Sacrament

Keneally, Thomas. “Crimes of the Father: A Novel”, Atria Books, 2017.

Sin and Sacrament

Amos Lassen

Father Frank Docherty was sent away from his native Australia to Canada because of his radical preachings against the Vietnam War, apartheid, and other of the time. He had had a satisfying career as a psychologist and monk. Later when he returns to Australia to lecture on the future of celibacy and the Catholic Church, he becomes that they been sexually abused by a prominent monsignor. Docherty was

a member of the commission investigating sex abuse within the Church, and because he is a man of character and conscience, he decides he must confront each party and try to bring the matter to the attention of both the Church and the secular authorities.

The book explores what it is to be a person of faith in the modern world, and Docherty’s courage to face the truth about an institution he loves. Keneally has a clear and of a culture that has been deeply wounded. We see here the “cynical casuistry of a church determined to fight critics down to ‘its last lawyer’, an institution that puts its survival above its soul.”

On his arrival in Sydney, his taxi driver abuses him when she realizes that he’s a priest, and he suspects that she was a victim of sex abuse by a priest so he gives her hid card and tells her to call him if needed. He then discovers that the son of a family friend committed suicide with a drug overdose, naming a priest as abusing him in a suicide letter. A bit later, the taxi driver contacts him naming the same priest as her abuser. This same priest is a prominent member of a church commission set up to conceal sex abuse by the priesthood and pays victims small amounts of money to sign confidential agreements.

Docherty feels legally and morally obliged to report the allegations to the Archbishop of Sydney, even though he knows that it isn’t going to help his application to return to Sydney. The Archbishop also refuses to give any credence to the allegations. He learns that the very same Archbishop was being transferred to the Vatican.

Set in the 1990s, this is a story about sexual abuse by Catholic priests and brothers and contains some thinly disguised portraits of current figures in the Church. This is a well-written (as we have come to expect from Keneally) and powerful novel that takes on a volatile subject.

“THE MADNESS OF KING GEORGE”— A Meditation on Power

“The Madness of King George”

A Meditation on Power

Amos Lassen

“The Madness of King George” by Alan Bennett, based on his stage play of the same name is a meditation on power and the metaphor of the body of state, Bennett uses the real episode of dementia experienced by George III (now suspected as a victim of porphyria, a blood disorder) to show this. As he loses his senses, he becomes both more alive, and more politically marginalized while his Lieutenants adapt the rules to avoid a challenge to regal authority, raising the question of who is really in charge.

This is both a funny and oddly poignant play about the British monarch who lost America (and quite possibly his mind). Nigel Hawthorne, who originated the role of George on stage repeats it brilliantly in the film with a subtly calibrated performance. He undergoes emotional rages, bouts of dementia and sudden attacks of lucidity and these give the film it’s most amusing and touching moments (and an Oscar nomination for Hawthorne).

It was at the very end of the 18th century that George III sent his court and country into a whirl over his sudden, strange behavior. He raged, yelled obscenities, rambled endlessly, attacked his mistress (Amanda Donohoe) and was unable to control his bowels. While quack doctors took his pulse, observed his stools and induced hideous heat blisters all over his body, the king’s courtiers and associates split into two factions. The king’s supporters included Prime Minister William Pitt (Julian Wadham), who needed to reassure the House of Commons that all was well with the royals, and George’s protective, loving wife, Queen Charlotte (Helen Mirren). On the opposing side were the indolent, ambitious Prince of Wales (Rupert Everett) plotting with Pitt’s political adversaries to have himself declared Regent.

Hope for George’s recovery was with visiting doctor Willis (Ian Holm), a physician with innovative, pre-Freudian ideas about psychotherapy, who restrained the king and treated him like a child. We have questions about whether Willis’s method would work and if the king was indeed mad and they remain with us until the end of the film. However, what matters most in this satire, directed by Nicholas Hytner is the marvelous dialogue. Hawthorne gives the whole movie both a nutty and tender authority.

The prince, who had not counted on this recovery, pretended to have great concern and relief for his father’s condition and the king promised his wife he would be gracious to his son and think loving, noble thoughts but, of course, that does not happen.

In 1788, after fathering 15 children and looking after England’s best interests for years, the monarch was hit with a mysterious malady that played with his digestive system and resulted in some aberrant behavior. King George’s loyal supporters were quite shaken by his incoherent babbling, the loss of his regal bearing, and some unseemly fondling of the queen’s lady in waiting. He confided to his long-suffering wife, “I hear the words and I have to speak them. I have to empty my head of words. Something is not right.” Eventually, the king was handed over to Willis.

King George valiantly tried to handle the indignities of his malady and what he called “paradise lost” — the American colonies. Helen Mirren is affective as his loyal wife, and Rupert Everett is well suited to be the Prince of Wales who schemed to be declared regent during his father’s descent into madness.

We see how illness can turn one’s world upside down and test us. Thanks to Dr. Willis, the king returned to the throne and regained his old self. We feel that because of an illness, he became more soulful and a little bit wiser. 

“SUBMERGED QUEER SPACES”— Our History Through an Architectural Slant

“Submerged Queer Spaces”

Our History Through an Architectural Slant

Amos Lassen

Jack Curtis Dubowsky’s documentary “Submerged Queer Spaces” is a documentary that looks at queer history through an approach of urban archeology concentrating on San Francisco. As the city grew and gentrified, communities changed, shifted, and were displaced. Places such as bars, restaurants, parks, alleys, bathhouses, and other sites where gay people came together were remodeled, rebuilt, destroyed or changed their reasons for being. The film examines what is left of these historic sites and buildings. in San Francisco. Eight people are interviewed and give firsthand experiences of these sites. Gerald Fabien experienced gay San Francisco before WWII, and tells stories about sailors, mariners, and the dangers of Union Square cruising. Guy Clark and Jae Whitaker speak about the unexpected racism they felt in a city that was supposedly liberal. We gain a historical look into those places that are gone but that were once very popular.

Through voiceover narrations by former patrons of places like The Black Cat and one-time cruisers in Union Square, we learn of places that once enjoyed had a strong gay community that has been lost because of gentrification and social displacement. This is a friendly study for everyone but especially for San Francisco natives.

Dubowsky found some of the people he interviews at a group called San Francisco Prime Timers and by word of mouth. We hear Gerald Fabien’s story about cruising a sailor who ended up being a murderer and are reminded that when being openly gay or actively sexual included risks. Doug Hilsinger speaks about The Eagle Tavern, and how its architecture affected the vibe and socialization there. The physical and social space of the Eagle Tavern played a very large role in its original creation and success.

Visiting some of these sites and finding architectural remains was like unearthing an ancient tomb. At the Blue and Gold and the Club Baths, there are still bits of tile that are decades old. There were also many mysteries but a lot of street numbers had been changed, so a documented address might no longer exist.

“Numinosity: A Fractured Memoir”, by Linda Morganstein— Family History as Fiction

Morganstein, Linda. “Numinosity: A Fractured Memoir”, Linda Morganstein, 2017.

Family History as Fiction

Amos Lassen

As a reviewer I am often asked who my favorite writers are and because I actually know many of the people whose works I review, I always claim that I have no favorites. Rather, I have writers that I always look forward to hearing from especially when they tell me that have a new book and would like me to review it. One of those writers is Linda Morganstein, a writer who never ceases to surprise me. Last week I got an email from Morganstein telling me that she had a new book out and she said a few a words about it and then let a UTube video say the most. She did not ask me if I would review it; she simply announced that she had a new book. She may have assumed that I would ask her to send me a copy and I loved that there was no pressure put on me. Of course I wanted to review it and answered her immediately with a request for a copy. It arrived yesterday and I have been with the book ever since. (Linda, you never have to ask—just send the books). As both a fiction and mystery writer, Morganstein has drawn fascinating and real characters. In one of my reviews of another of her books, I wrote “that [her characters] are well defined and real. When I say real I mean that we can see ourselves in them.” In her new book, “Numinosity”, her characters are drawn from her family and herself and that is about as real as one can get. This is Morganstein’s family history as a fictionalized memoir and the entire book is very clever. Morganstein has thrown traditional formatting out of the window and gives us a book modeled on the old “Life” magazine. Size wise it is about half the size of a coffee table book but certainly not the size of books that we are used to reading. It is filled with photographs and blurbs and I soon found myself tearing up about some of the memories it raises.

The content comes from Morganstein’s “eccentric family history” but written as a fictionalized memoir. Divided into six chapters, we have articles written by invented personalities (all of whom are the author herself). Like a magazine, there are ads on many pages but what is advertised are products of the author’s mind (and great fun). Morganstein parodies consumerism with ads for “NYX Ballbuster” cigarettes and “Nadir” televisions. There is something special on every page making this one of the “funnest” books I have ever read or even held in my hands.

It does not tale long to realize that this is a book about “the relationship of humor and tragedy in art” and that if we are going to leave the past behind us we must take a look at what was and fashion it into its own story which will be a tragicomedy. By consciously laughing and crying about the past, we liberate ourselves from it.

I was reminded when I was a young religious school student at my synagogue in New Orleans and we began to read the Hebrew bible. One of the major Jewish publishing houses put out a comic book edition of the Five Books of Moses and we were all given a copy. The rabbi knew that the best way to get his students to understand was to make the read fun for them and this was the age of Archie and Veronica who we soon saw as Samson and Delilah. This is how we learned— reading a comic book about the patriarchs (for us there were not yet matriarchs back then) and I grew to love the Bible stories in the comic book that I kept next to my bed. In effect, that is what Linda Morganstein has done here. She gives us an illustrated biography that is fun to read and like those Bible stories, I am not likely to forget it. She has torn down the barriers between genres, stood literature on its head and shows us how to have fun as we read. Here is “visual/verbal” art that has a message of seriousness. I now will replace my own Bible comic book with “Numinosity” on the bed table next to where I sleep and I am pretty sure that I will read it as many times as I read about Moses parting the sea.

 

 

 

“Carnivore” by Jonathan Lyon— A New Kind of Thriller

Lyon, Jonathan. “Carnivore”, HarperCollins 360, 2017.

A New Kind of Thriller

Amos Lassen

Leander suffers from fibromyalgia and lives in constant pain and his personal therapy is very strange. He manipulates, tortures and emotionally devastates his ‘victims’ as he tries to deal with his own physical and emotional situation. While his pain his chronic, he uses sex, control and class A drugs to try to cover it up.

At times, the plot becomes quite violent as Leander tries to become high and disguise what he feels. He intentionally and constantly puts himself into dangerous and sadistic situations that he describes in great detail. This is a disturbing story that is written in gorgeous prose with vivid imagery and a lot of brutality that is upsetting, unsettling and overwhelmingly sadistic; not the kind of book you read before bed.

Leander is wise, manipulative, intelligent and totally without morals. He is drawn to the most notorious, violent criminal in London and soon the loves of the two men are intertwined to the detriment of all who become involved with the pair. Drugs, murder, anal rape and sex seems to become a way of life for the two. They are detached emotionally from the violence they partake in and while it is disturbing to read, it is never gratuitous, salacious or pornographic.

I am not sure how to describe or even summarize the plot because this is one of those books that pulls you in and keeps you reading without, at first, understanding what is going on. We are simply pulled into a world that is much unlike our own yet we dare not leave.

The prose is of such horror, beauty and madness that it is difficult to dwell on them. Almost all of the characters are unlikeable but have been drawn in a way that makes us look at them. Leander makes us totally aware that he is a messed up person who is seductive who sells himself so that he can buy heroin to ease his physical pain. He is handsome, insane and totally dysfunctional yet I could not turn away from him.

Leander pulls us along with him as he manipulates the lives of others. His internal monologues are twisted rantings and he is both strong and weak because of his ailment. I do not yet know why I really liked this book; I suppose as it settles into my mind I will find that out.

I had to look away from the text several times so it is important to realize that this is not a book for everyone.