I don’t usually take part in that Thanksgiving ritual of listing all the things you’re thankful for. That’s partly because I’m a crusty old cynic, and partly because it seems like bragging, or at least tempting fate, to actually enumerate the good stuff.
But over the last few weeks, I certainly have felt grateful. I generally feel lucky to be living in New York City, but the theater can make me feel downright blessed — especially when I end up breathing the same air as Meryl Streep, Tyne Daly, Jane Lynch, and Anna Deavere Smith.
I can barely wrap my head around this embarrassment of riches, so I’m just going to relive them in chronological order. First, Meryl Streep. On Nov. 2, she appeared with Kevin Kline in The Lover and the Poet, a benefit for The Acting Company.
At first I couldn’t believe I actually shelled out the money for this one — I am not in the same tax bracket as people who go to these things — but now I’m glad I did.
They acted out some choice scenes; took turns reading sonnets; and sang — sang! — a few standards and show tunes.
On the surface, the whole thing was a tiny bit slapdash and a lot too short. Streep seemed unrehearsed, and Kline got lost in the sound of his own voice. But these "flaws" only made it all feel more real; they only deepened my appreciation for that Streepy something that has dazzled audiences worldwide. She has that thing, whatever it is, even when she hasn’t fully prepared or when she’s relaxed and just having fun — she has that thing that makes you feel like you’ve just been hugged or healed or had some important understanding imparted to you.
And then there’s her beauty and sensuality. It too is "flawed" — she’s not always graceful, not always picture-perfect. Her hair fell into her eyes; she made an awkward gesture or two; and, again, all of it only made me love her more.
I guess the "thing" is honesty. Sometimes she’s honestly channeling something, taking in unfiltered pain or joy and radiating it back to us with some finer thread weaved into it, and sometimes she’s honestly struggling or shrugging. She’s true.
A couple of weeks later, I bought last-minute tickets to Love, Loss and What I Wore, the Nora Ephron play that’s sort of like The Vagina Monologues but centers on clothing instead of on, um, coming. I didn’t think I’d like the material much, being an average lesbian who favors comfort over fashion, but how could I resist Tyne Daly and Jane Lynch?
(Meryl saw the same cast — here she is with them, but not the same night I saw them. That would just be crazy.)
The show turned out to be much funnier than I expected. Tyne was head and shoulders above the rest dramatically, and Jane was head and shoulders above the rest physically — wow, is she tall! I’m glad they were sitting next to each other, because it was really difficult to decide which one to watch.
In an interview with New York magazine, Jane sounded thrilled to finally be making her (off-)Broadway debut. I think we’ll probably see her on the boards again, because she seemed to belong there. At the same time, she too seemed more real — not always quick with a joke, not always getting the last word. And she seemed perfectly OK with that — even slightly relieved.
A mere three days later, I saw Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman show Let Me Down Easy. I’ve been a fan of hers since The West Wing, but I’m a little befuddled by her current role on Nurse Jackie: is she supposed to be the comic relief? If so, whose stupid idea was that? Surely not hers. So when I bought the tickets, I was hoping the show would redeem that silliness, or at least let her be silly in her own way.
The show is based on interviews Smith did with 20 people who were dealing with illness or age or death — end-of-the-road stuff in general. It’s an impressive piece of work: 20 people brought to life by one woman. But as the review in The New York Times notes, "Ms. Smith is not the kind of performer who wholly disappears into the people she is portraying; she is too forceful a presence for that." (Though even her forcefulness can’t subdue that goofy character on Nurse Jackie; the stories do matter as much as the storyteller.)
Just as with Love, Loss, I didn’t really expect to like the subject matter of Let Me Down Easy, but I was wrong again. It rattled around in my head for days; once you start thinking about how you’d like to look back on your own life, it’s hard to stop, especially when you find yourself staring at cubicle walls or otherwise wasting your precious time.
And there was the "real" factor again: Smith worked hard on that stage. We don’t get to see the labor behind film and TV, so when all the sweat and exertion of acting is right in front of you, it’s kind of astonishing. Combine that with the whole contemplating-your-own-mortality thing, and you end up feeling more grounded, more aware of what your own senses are telling you.
I wouldn’t have expected these three shows to have anything in common, but for me they did: each woman, up there under the lights and yet not so very far away, conveyed (intentionally or not) a simple, profound message: we’re human. So are you. And isn’t that great — shouldn’t we be grateful?
So at the risk of tempting fate, I’m giving thanks for the theater this year. And even for what Shakespeare called "this wide and universal theater." I’m happy to be a "mere player" these days.