September 29, 2014. As an amber-violet sunset spread across a CinemaScope sky to the west of Manhattan, the House of SpeakEasy returned to City Winery for the inaugural show of its fall season. Almost three hundred guests gathered to listen, to laugh, to share, and to refill their glasses as six writers — Marcelo Gleiser, Natalie Haynes, John Guare, Gary Shteyngart, Gail Sheehy, and Andrew Solomon — took to the stage to ponder this month’s theme, Inside the Lie. This month’s guest stars? Copernicus, RFK, Oedipus, Sophia Loren’s panties, an uncommon family set-up, a Bavarian porn star…
We’ll be posting videos from the show soon, but here’s a sneak preview of what went down when the curtain went up…
Marcelo Gleiser (Photo: Nick Carter)
Marcelo Gleiser: “We matter because we are very rare…”
Marcelo Gleiser set the scene in 1543 with the death of Copernicus. The Prussian math genius supposedly died with his newly published masterwork, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, in his hands, horrified by the preface tacked on by Lutheran nay-sayer Andreas Osiander that essentially discredited all that followed. Copernicus’s theory — maybe the sun… doesn’t orbit the earth? — would of course turn the world upside down (pun). But reversing the cosmic order, especially one which sustains the reigning orthodoxy, takes, in Marcelo’s words, “a lot of guts.” Copernicus, thankfully, would have the last laugh.
Many of the things we take for granted today depend upon the advances made by quantum physicists, working in the realm of the indescribably small. “Science is about opening windows into this invisible reality,” said Marcelo, windows which — he contends — go on opening indefinitely. “There is no final, firm scientific knowledge. Just evolving ideas.” If this sounds defeatist, though, it’s not. Embracing the Copernican Principle and all the scientific progress made off the back of it, we see in fact that “Earth is very special.” We may have one moon while Jupiter’s got sixty-plus, but the mass and relative position of ours is what enables the seasons to change. There may be two hundred billion other stars in the Milky Way, which is “really humbling,” but if intelligent life exists anywhere out there, it would have to be so remote from what we know that we are, effectively, alone. “We matter because we are very rare. We are the way the universe thinks about itself… That is liberating. It will keep us curious!”
Natalie Haynes (Photo: Nick Carter)
Natalie Haynes: “Batman & Robin — a film so bad I fainted at the end of it.”
“New York is the only city I ever performed in as a stand-up comedian where everyone speaks at the same speed as me,” began Natalie Haynes at the start of a light-speed set encompassing Aristotle and Angel Heart, Oedipus and Arnie. “Since the theme for tonight is ‘Inside the Lie,’ I thought I would talk about the greatest lie in Greek theater…”
Natalie recapped the plot of Oedipus the King at Nascar speed, right down to Jocasta’s suicide and the terrible revelation of the king’s provenance. “Come on, you’ve had two and a half thousand years to read it!”
As she pointed out, Sophocles’ masterpiece set the template for the modern whodunnit. It is, in Aristotelian terms, “the most perfect Greek tragedy,” an exemplary synthesis of — in order of importance — plot, character, reasoning, dialogue, music, and spectacle. Not how Hollywood works today, Natalie observed, with reference to Joel Schumacher’s 1997 anti-classic, Batman & Robin, “a film so bad I fainted at the end of it.” The costume for Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in said movie cost the production $1 million. “Could you have spent five, maybe seven cents of that on the script…?”
John Guare (Photo: Nick Carter)
John Guare: “I went into the bathroom and saw, hanging on a doorknob, Sophia Loren’s panties…”
Prompted by a James Taylor concert on PBS, legendary playwright John Guare took us back to February 10, 1971, “the day my life changed.” Following a film screening, Guare was accosted in the subway by a blonde woman and two short Italian men, one of whom turned out to be film producer Carlo Ponti, perhaps better known as the husband of Sophia Loren. Ponti had been prepping an Elliott Gould movie only for Gould to suffer a breakdown, leaving the production leading-man-free. Guare, whose elegant height is a decent match for Gould’s 6’3″, agreed to screen-test for the incongruous trio. The next day, he was offered a three-picture deal.
“My lawyer called and said, ‘Carlo wants you to go to the Essex House right now to meet Sophia Loren!'” And there she was. “I read she’d had the inner edges of her eyes tattooed so she’d never have to apply eyeliner again. I wanted to get close to check…”
Things got surreal. Needing a break, Guare slid into the bathroom, where he saw, “hanging on a doorknob… Sophia Loren’s panties.” As if to affirm both the reality and the absurdity of the situation: “I took them… and I put them on my head.”
Ponti made some amazing promises, including transforming Guare’s Broadway show The House of Blue Leaves into a movie. But Guare had had second thoughts.
One morning: “I woke up and turned on the radio, and heard James Taylor… It was ‘You’ve Got A Friend.’ ‘They’ll take your soul if you let them…'”
“At 7am, I called the Essex House and said I couldn’t do the movie. I was living inside this lie of success. Carlo said, ‘You’ll never act again,’ and I said, ‘Fine!'”
The special guest host for SpeakEasy’s literary quiz, Tip of My Tongue, was jewelry designer and sometime Wes Anderson co-star Waris Ahluwalia, who tantalised the crowd with the six Ferraris up for grabs outside City Winery for the winners (inside the lie indeed…) This month’s mystery passages came from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Dorothy Parker’s “Unfortunate Coincidence,” and Hamlet.
Gary Shteyngart (Photo: Nick Carter)
Gary Shteyngart: “My whole life has been just one lie.”
Little Failure, which comes out in paperback from Random House on October 7, is Gary Shteyngart‘s hilarious new memoir. In it, he recounts his experience of “being a liar, by which I mean being a writer…”
“My real name is Igor Shteynhorn — I was a Bavarian porn star before.” So begins the story of a little Soviet boy in Leningrad (no longer its name, of course) who comes to America loving Lenin, learns to revere Ronnie, and dreams of a day when he no longer has to attend the Solomon Schechter School of Queens (“I wanna live in Miami! Maybe there won’t be Hebrew school in Miami!”) Growing up in Queens in the 1980s as a Russian emigré necessitated a certain degree of deception, and young Gary, tormented by Reagan’s “evil empire” speech, pretends he was born in East Berlin. “You know things are bad when you have to convince Jewish kids you’re a German!”
But he found huge pleasure in writing. Admitting to a favorite teacher that he has written a novel — entitled The Chalenge [sic] — he is persuaded to share it with the class. It is well received, and eventually every class will be punctuated by hoots of “When will Gary read already?”
“God bless these kids for giving me a chance,” he concluded. “May their God bless them, every one.”
Gail Sheehy (Photo: Nick Carter)
Gail Sheehy: “It’s the job of the journalist to expose the truth or the lie.”
In the early days of her romance with New York magazine co-founder Clay Felker, Gail Sheehy was commissioned to follow Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential primary campaign as he battled Senator Eugene McCarthy. “You have to grab something that everybody’s talking about but they don’t know why,” said Felker, and off flew Sheehy on RFK’s trail.
“Would you like to sit up here, New York?” said the handsome senator. Sheehy, astonished, wordless, joined him. Kennedy reached for his brother’s overcoat, which he continued to wear even five years after the assassination. “We talk about that,” Sheehy told us, “and how he faces fear and death.”
During the flight, a sudden emergency: a second plane on the horizon, seemingly headed straight for them. “We dropped. And in the middle of the drop, RFK says, ‘I knew Gene McCarthy was desperate but I didn’t know he was that desperate!'”
Sheehy concluded with the revealing, somewhat risqué story of how Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, managed to look fabulous even ten years into her premiership. “I’ve done a lot of things to get a story,” she said, “but I draw the line at electrocution!”
Andrew Solomon (Photo: Nick Carter)
Andrew Solomon: “An interview about depression may not sound like the beginning of a love story, but it was.”
To round off the evening, the SpeakEasy crowd welcomed Andrew Solomon to the stage. Recalling his childhood, Solomon alighted on a gay couple his parents had befriended, Elmer and Willie, who often spent Christmas with the Solomons. Elmer had been studying medicine at Yale before he was drafted during the Second World War, and Solomon was brought up believing that he gave up becoming a doctor because of what he’d seen in battle. “I didn’t know I was inside a lie when I heard that story.” But as Willie later told him, “No one was going to a gay doctor then.”
“Not a great message for me to grow up with,” Solomon commented. His own sexual journey bypassed sexual surrogacy therapy in Hell’s Kitchen (“these women were not exactly prostitutes but they weren’t exactly anything else”) and a series of relationships with both men and women. Finally, he met John, now his husband, on the media tour for his book on depression, The Noonday Demon. Together, they mulled over having children. And after both had become sperm donors for other couples — one lesbian, one straight — they set out to do just that.
The truth is complicated. As Solomon remarked, searching for egg donors on the internet is “like ordering a car online that you’re gonna have to drive for the rest of your life.” And parties can get confusing — as one guest remarked after a dinner Andrew and John had hosted, “There must be a word for this kind of consanguinity, but I very much enjoyed talking to the daughter of the partner of the mother of your daughter.” But diversity is necessary “to sustain the ecosphere of kindness,” and truth in this case — and many others — is certainly preferable to the lies that destroyed so many Willies and Elmers.
Seriously Entertaining is back! The first of our two shows this fall, Inside the Lie, hits City Winery on Monday, September 29, with a mind-expanding line-up of literary talent. Don’t have your tickets yet? Check out our writers below in an audiovisual preview of some of the pleasures that await you.
John Guare‘s fifty-year career on the American stage and screen has been marked by some stunning highs, including the Tony Award-winning success of The House of Blue Leaves, Louis Malle’s classic 1980 movie Atlantic City, starring Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon, and, more recently, A Free Man of Color (2010). Check out our survey of his career here. In this interview at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Guare muses on the theory he helped popularize in perhaps his best-known play, 1990’s Six Degrees of Separation. “What about all the people we can’t find? The people who, through race and poverty… vanish? That’s what the play is about.”
Stand-up comedian, popular classicist, essayist, columnist, and now novelist, Natalie Haynes brings all her talents to bear on her literary debut, the tragic thriller The Furies (St. Martin’s Press, 2014). Set in a children’s behavioral unit in Edinburgh, it’s a fast-moving psychological stunner shot through with black humour (check out our full review). Earlier this month, we chatted to Natalie about Sophocles, The Wire and Mickey Rourke, and what we should really be teaching our kids. Read the full interview here, and watch Natalie talking about her earlier book The Ancient Guide to Modern Life here:
Gail Sheehy‘s explosive journalistic career has seen her board the Kennedy ’68 campaign jet, travel to the heart of the sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, and investigate the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Along the way, she found time to get lost inside Grey Gardens, to follow Hillary Clinton into bathrooms, and, most recently, to dash off a quick memoir, Daring: My Passages (William Morrow, 2014). A veteran of the political profile and an intrepid reporter on the female experience, Sheehy’s is a fascinating journey. Read our review of Daring, follow Gail on Twitter, and check out the lady herself as she talks about her new book here:
Never give up the enormity of this dream. Keep telling the lie. The United States will always be the last undiscovered terrain — even if we have to move the white spaces inside our head. Always hold out the promise that you can find your passage to the west, to whatever it is — love everlasting, bottomless wealth, glory —
These lines, which arrive at the end of one of John Guare’s most recent plays, could be the perfect epigraph for his collected works. Desire for betterment, self-deluding ambition, holding out on a maybe: these unite Guare’s best-known characters, from Artie Shaughnessy in The House of Blue Leaves(1966) and Sally in Atlantic City(1980) to pretty much everyone in Six Degrees of Separation (1990), his most widely performed play. There are plenty of rogues in Guare’s work — con artists, thieves, drug dealers, aspiring terrorists — but they are defined less by their unsavory pursuits than their mastery of self-deception. His is a poetics of delusion.
The House of Blue Leaves, which won the Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Obie for Best American Play for its 1971 production, was Guare’s breakthrough. Artie Shaughnessy is an aspiring songwriter and actual zookeeper married to the heavily medicated Bananas but having an open affair with the vulgar Bunny Flingus. The play’s action takes place on the day in 1965 when the Pope visited the US to appeal to the UN for an end to the Vietnam War. Artie and Bananas’ son, Ronnie, has absented himself from boot camp to blow up the pontiff at Yankee Stadium. Throw in some riotous nuns and a deaf starlet, bake for two acts, and you have prime Guare: an absurd tableau in garish chiaroscuro brushstrokes.
Artie and Ronnie are the prototypical Guarean dreamers. Ronnie, as a boy, dreamed of playing Huckleberry Finn in the movies — “all the store windows reflected me and the mirror in the tailor shop said, ‘Hello, Huck.'” His failure has evidently weighed on him since, and his disillusionment has led him to the psychotic’s conclusion: only notoriety remains. His father, meanwhile, continues to dream of California and Hollywood, encouraged by the optimistic Bunny. The latter, a marvelous confection, is one of Guare’s many shape-shifters, the embodiment of a specifically American chameleonism that allows her to constantly reinvent herself. “I didn’t work for Con Edison for nothing!” she’ll say, or “I didn’t work in a law office for nix. I could sue you for breach.” Her impossibly extensive resumé is both a good running joke and an indication of the lengths to which she’ll go to keep Artie in line.
The ability to reinvent (or at least deceive) oneself turns out to be something of a running joke throughout Guare’s work. Burt Lancaster’s ageing hood Lou in Atlantic City — a grand, sad film that feels weirdly timely this week — is constantly boasting about the gangsters he’s known (“I knew Bugsy Siegel. I was his cellmate!”). It’s not till nearly the end of the film that he confesses to Sally (Susan Sarandon), the woman he’s fallen in love with, that this is all bluster; that he met Siegel only once, in passing. Sally is a more sympathetic version of Bunny, with dreams of becoming a croupier and travelling the world (“I’m gonna deal my way to Europe”). She’s generally pretty streetwise, but in her romance with Lou ironically overlooks the advice of her croupier-mentor, who warns his trainees, “They have a million different ways of trying to cheat you!” In this scene, as Lou is demystified in front of her, we see the illusions fall away:
In A Free Man of Color (2010), the play’s mixed-race Don Juan, Jacques Cornet, is also a master of reinvention. Repeatedly he retitles his life story to accommodate his changing circumstances: “A Free Man of Color or The Happy Life of a Man in Power. A Free Man of Color or How I Take Control. A Free Man of Color or How Jefferson Is a Liar…” Cornet understands that illusion can be a sustaining force; indeed he relies on it to achieve his many sexual conquests. But by the end of the play, he’s become the victim of one of the grandest of all illusions, the American promise that “All men are created equal.” A Free Man of Color is a burlesque history of the Louisiana Purchase, and as such its theme is the violence at the heart of the nation’s history. The Purchase marked the introduction of racism into the gaudy Eden of New Orleans as the city was sold to the burgeoning Republic by an overstretched Napoleon. As the play ends, Cornet sees clearly — even prophetically. He urges Thomas Jefferson to change the course of history: “You’ll avoid a Civil War — Jim Crow — Dred Scott — lynching — back of the bus — whites only — assassination — degradation — ” He even foresees Hurricane Katrina, “when generations of Margerys and Murmurs and Dr. Toubibs and the girls of Mme. Mandragola will be trapped on rooftops in New Orleans, reaching up to be saved. I say those bitter words ‘Hang on!'” The curtain falls on the final iteration of the play’s title: “A Free Man of Color or How One Man Became an American.”
Nearly two hundred years later, young black men are still being forced to reinvent themselves in order to succeed. In Six Degrees of Separation, con man Paul gulls a series of pretentious Manhattanites, insinuating himself into their lives by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier. He learns the shibboleths of their set — Kandinsky, Salinger, Barthelme, pots of jam — and charms cash and a bed for the night out of art dealers Ouisa and Flan Kittredge.
But the weight of Paul’s constructed identity is too great. He brings a prostitute into the Kittredges’ home and is thrown out. He seduces a young actor fresh off the bus from Utah, who, unable to face his girlfriend afterwards, commits suicide. His other victims turn on him, too, and their hatred is racially inflected (“My son has no involvements with any black frauds. Doctor, you said something about crack?”) He butts up against the limits of political correctness, white liberal guilt, and collective delusions about the state of the nation. A great comedy of manners, Six Degrees of Separation is also still an urgent and serious work in a nation once again torn apart by racial politics.
Guare’s has been a brilliant career. Earlier this year, he accepted the Dramatists Guild’s Lifetime Achievement Award. His tragicomic analysis of the deceptions that sustain us has made for an incomparable contribution to the American stage of the last fifty years. He once wrote that “the only playwrighting rule is that you have to learn your craft so that you can put on stage plays you would like to see.” Fortunately for us, they’re plays we want to see, too.
We’re delighted to be joined by John Guare at our next Seriously Entertaining showcase, Inside the Lie, at City Winery NYC on September 29. You can buy tickets here and copies of Guare’s plays at McNally Jackson. Inside the Lie will also feature Natalie Haynes, Gail Sheehy, Andrew Solomon and Marcelo Gleiser.