Thursday, January 21, 2010

Elaine Stritch: believing the words

Ordinarily, The New York Crank doesn’t review nightclub acts, but I’m making an exception for Elaine Stritch. If you don’t like this change of pace from the political, you can buzz off. So far as I’m concerned, the lady’s a piece of work and I’m taking notice.

But a bit of background first.

Years ago, I made my entire living telling fibs. Not outright lies. Just essentially harmless fibs, the kind that got people to buy dishwashing liquid in a white bottle instead of a green bottle, or to charge things with a green credit card instead of a blue credit card. In other words, I was in the advertising business.

And then one day, the business actually taught me something valuable—the kind of thing that offers a fresh insight into how stuff works.

I was talking to the director of a TV spot, who was casting for a voice. I don’t remember what the line was that the voice would say. Probably some tame version of this incongruous thought, “Makes love to your hands while it beats the crap out of grease.”

“There are so many announcers with great voices out there,” I said to him. “So how come you’re auditioning only people from Broadway?”

“It’s simple,” the director replied. And then he said, with dramatic emphasis and pregnant pauses between each word, “Actors…believe…the…words.

Which brings me back to Elaine Stritch.

Stritch is currently appearing at the Café Carlyle, a nightclub in a chichi New York hotel. It's the kind of hotel where movie stars, politicians, investment bank bigshots and diplomats routinely share the elevator.

Ostensibly she’s singing Stephen Sondheim’s songs. I say ostensibly because the lady’s been around the block a few times (her stage debut was in 1944), she’s had a few episodes with booze, and her voice bears the scars. While she miraculously brings off Sondheim's often murder-to-sing ballads, she generally seems to be croaking in tune rather than singing in tune.

But no matter. Stritch may or may not be a singer but she is one hell of an actress and anyone who believes Sondheim’s words can put on a powerful performance just by speaking them. That is essentially what she did. In fact, she spoke one number, entirely without music.

Stritch's delivery toyed with her audience’s emotions. She played it for humor when she sang “I feel pretty/oh so pretty” as if she was letting the audience in on her own ironic joke. She brought some to tears, when she delivered the lyrics to, Every Day a Little Death. And the thought, “damn right about that,” went through my head when she sang Ladies Who Lunch.

There’s another reason to go to the Café Carlyle and hear Stritch (she’s only there until January 30th, so hurry) assuming you’re willing to part with a horrendously thick wad of cash. It’s one of those rare performance venues where the entertainers must be sorely tempted to entertain themselves by watching the audience. And where the audience might be tempted to keep a close eye on one another.

I was sitting with my beautiful girlfriend next to a couple of evidently connected guys (Bonanno family I warrant, judging from some names dropped during their overheard conversation). One of them was accompanied by a much younger woman whose face was a figment of some plastic surgeon’s wildest flight of, umm, creativity—augmented by an equally fanciful makeup job. I won’t even try to describe it. You had to be there.

We had a celebrity in the audience too, the actress Kathleen Turner, who of course was raptly listening to the words. Plus the usual assortment of stock characters from central casting playing out their personal vignettes: The two older gay guys holding hands. The two younger gay guys holding hands. Two middle-aged lesbians who stood up to applaud, whoop and cheer after each number and who nearly swallowed Stritch alive during the performance. The clueless out-of-towner staying at the hotel who came down in his sneakers, jeans and sweatshirt and had to be brought a jacket by the maitre d’.
An incongruous priest in full clerical uniform. By now you probably get the scene.

The bill for the performance and a modest dinner for two—two salads, two plates of salmon, one martini, one glass of wine, one cup of coffee—cost more than my first term of private college tuition, back when Stritch was starring in the Goodyear Television Playhouse. Or to put it another way, I could have flown to Europe and back—this year. Well, money is toilet paper these days.

But Stritch is hard to beat, most especially if you’re one of those people who understands what it means to believe the words.

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