I took this yesterday. It’s catty-corner across the corner from Moving Arts, where we’ve been provoking arguments since 1992.
Why do I love the music I love?
Tonight at 7 p.m. in Santa Monica, I’ll be one of the five storytellers addressing this question. (Most specifically in my case the music of Pere Ubu.) It’s my second appearance in a program of live storytelling called Shine. Here are the details, if you’d like to come join us.
The other night, my wife said, “Why are you doing this?” (Somehow neglecting the fact that I’ve been doing readings, speeches, talks, and what have you pretty much my entire life.) Before I could respond, one of my kids said, “So he can get people to listen to Pere Ubu for 10 minutes.”
Precisely right. It’s missionary work.
For a few years now, since seeing the eatery profiled on television by Anthony Bourdain, I’ve been trying to eat at Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco. I love seafood, and I respect Mr. Bourdain’s opinion and revere his smart and smart-alecky New Jersey attitude about food and its particulars while enjoying the company of newfound friends. Any attachment I can make to the Bourdain lifestyle, I take.
It shouldn’t be difficult to get into a public restaurant, but Swan has proved challenging. Their hours are limited, lines are long, they don’t take reservations, and although I’m in San Francisco two or three times a year, I’m not always in that end of town. Plus, the place seats only about 10 people.
But I have made efforts.
The first time I went to Swan, they were closed unexpectedly for maintenance. This was probably two years ago.
The next time I went to Swan, driving in from Burlingame (home to SF airport), they were closed. It was a Sunday and I hadn’t realized they are closed on Sunday.
The third time I went to Swan, the line was too long and I could see I’d never get in.
The fourth time I went to Swan, I actually got in line and was going to get in! A shiver ran through my being. Unfortunately, I had to use the restroom. I asked someone to hold my place and said I’d be right back, and dashed across the street to the Chase bank that I knew to have a public restroom in the lobby. When I returned, I discovered that someone had taken my place and that Swan had closed the line right behind that place. In other words, I would have gotten in. But now the line was definitively closed. I did speak with one of the proprietors about my predicament, and while he sounded sympathetic, he also sounded as though he’d heard variations of this excuse many times and wasn’t falling for it. I decided not to get irritated about this, because I wanted to preserve the charm of eating at Swan some day, and because having the grail has little value if you haven’t endured a grail quest in order to get it. So I went off and had middling pizza instead.
Then, yesterday, I found myself in San Francisco again, on business to see a client’s show and with a friend and colleague in tow, and said to him, “Hey… have you ever eaten at Swan Oyster Depot? Do you like oysters?” He hadn’t, and he does, so off we went, walking just over a mile of San Francisco’s extreme peaks and valleys, until arriving at the nondescript but legendary little diner that serves oysters and not much else. We got in line, and a mere 20 minutes later, we were encamped inside on shaky barstools that surely date back to the joint’s opening in 1912. I ordered a beer, clam chowder, a combination salad (lobster, crab, and I don’t know what, atop shredded lettuce), and of course a plate of mixed oysters drawn from both our majestic shores, topped off with San Franciscan sourdough bread and pats of butter straight from the frozen north. All was deeply good.
Later, checking out the LA Times online, I was astonished to note that that very day, the Times ran a story calling Swan Oyster Bar “The Best Place to Eat in America.” Not the best oyster place; not the best place in San Francisco; not the best place that week; just The Best Place to Eat in America. Now, while I certainly enjoyed Swan Oyster Bar, and the complete satisfaction that came from finally getting in and ordering any damn thing I wanted, and paying $145 for the pleasure of lunch for two, this was not the most spectacular meal I’d ever enjoyed. I recall fondly one evening in the Aria in Las Vegas where the waiter brought out sample round after sample round when he decided he’d just taken a shine to my business partner and me. (Mostly to her.) I also recall a splendid experience with my wife at a major seafood house in San Francisco where the $300 we plunked down for dinner was richly rewarded with serving after serving of truly divine finny treasures and drinks. But the offerings at Swan, much as I enjoyed them, reminded me of a line from one of my own plays: ”It’s like first sex. You finally got what you wanted, but now you’re a little disappointed.”
Plus, to be picky, the Best Place to Eat in America is not Swan Oyster Depot, or any other place that posts dollar signs next to food names. The Best Place to Eat in America is my mother’s house. As anyone who’s eaten there can attest.
I’m not sure I feel like seeing that new “Fantastic Four” movie everyone is panning.
What I’d really like to see is the unaired “Fantastic Four” TV series from 1963.
My friend Jan Munroe (that’s him second from the right), actor extraordinaire (also skilled in mime, juggling, clowning, etc.), was on one of those late-night shows the other night that you’re not watching, in a bit with Kevin Bacon.
But I’m not sure that Jan, who was in a very big movie with Mr. Bacon, enjoyed being called a “bit player.”
A few weeks ago, I got an email from my friend Larry Eisenberg that Group Rep, the theatre near my house where he’s artistic director, was staging “The Winning Streak” by Lee Blessing, a play I’d never seen.
I emailed Larry, whom I’ve known and worked off and on with for just over 25 years:
I know Lee Blessing.
And he now lives here in Los Angeles.
Has he come to see this, or been involved in the rehearsals?
If not, perhaps I can get him to come see it.
Now, mind you, Lee Blessing is one of the perhaps 40 American playwrights who make their living writing plays. (The rest are independently well-off or are primarily writing television or they’re in academia or they own marketing companies. Seriously.) His plays, including “A Walk in the Woods,” “Cobb,” “Going to St. Ives,” “Two Rooms” and about 30 others are constantly produced all over the world. He is one of our great, and widely known, playwrights.
So, when Larry and I had a little email back-and-forth where in a very gentlemanly way he hinted that perhaps it was inconceivable that I knew Lee Blessing, I understood. Because how could he know that I’ve been acquainted with Lee for about five years now because of our mutual affiliation with the Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha?
Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of seeing “The Winning Streak” at Larry’s theatre, in what I thought was a terrific production, with the playwright seated to my right, and to introduce Lee Blessing on stage while sharing with the audience the story of Larry’s friendly skepticism and then turning to Larry, pointing to Lee off to my left on-stage, and saying, “So Larry, I win.” Larry and everyone else in the packed house laughed.
Like all of Lee’s plays that I’ve seen, “The Winning Streak” proved to be moving, funny, and incredibly well-written, so well-written as to appear effortless. But it couldn’t have been. For one thing, it’s a two-character play — probably the single hardest sort of play to write well. A badly written two-character play is like a ping-pong match, with two opposing forces lobbing the ball back and forth; this is why so many of us write, instead, three-character plays, where the conflict can constantly shift. I said this to Lee (who, it should be noted, has written no fewer than five full-length two-handers), who didn’t know why he kept returning to this form — he just does.
To the theatre company’s great delight, Lee had agreed to do a talkback. He was generous with his time, putting in about an hour, thoughtful and funny in response to good questions, kind to bad questions, and not unduly harsh to the one guy in the front who kept asking moronic questions. (“Did you ever think of giving the old man’s ailments to the young guy in the play?” “Would you ever consider writing a play with someone?” — Meaning, no doubt, himself.)
Lee of course got the “How do you face the blank page?” question. He quipped, “Luckily, I have a computer” — but then answered seriously about playwriting. He started as a poet, then found that he had a facility for writing plays, and gradually the poetry fell away (I had a similar experience with writing fiction); playwriting is a form he knows how to express himself in. In addition to grasp of the form, he said he enjoys writing the first draft, but really enjoys writing the second draft — and that’s essential, because all plays are rewritten, and you’d better enjoy rewriting.
Afterward, Lee left to go grade papers for a course he’s teaching online. I chatted briefly with a friend who’s in my playwriting workshop, which was where we both had been just before the start of the play. The day was like having three playwriting practicums in a row — first, in my workshop, as we got to hear and talk about five plays-in-progress; then seeing Lee’s play; then hearing Lee talk about writing plays. It was a fun, thrilling, heady day spent with writers and experiencing their work.
The next day, today, I spent fixing sinks in my house.
I hate the whole “If you don’t agree, just de-friend me” movement. Better to form an argument and CONVINCE people of it than just to write them off.
On Friday night, I went to see the revival of “Bent” at the Mark Taper Forum with a friend, and was inspired on the way home to send out more of my plays, particularly the older ones. So today I spent a couple of hours reviewing all the plays I’ve written.
I found several that I’d completely forgotten about, including “Second Ice Age,” an unfinished full-length that, in retrospect, I now remember writing. I read it and found that it was not only pretty good (so far), it should be easy to finish, because in addition to the pages written, I’ve got a scene breakdown. So why didn’t I finish it? And would I be able to finish it now? I’m not the same person I was in January of 2008 — but have I changed so much that I won’t be able to recapture the rhythm and style and concerns of this particular play?
I found other unfinished plays in various stages of completion. Some of them have titles that make me want to finish them: “I, Teratoma” (a full-length that’s about two-thirds complete); “Ripped-Up Dog-Face Guy” (with a helpful note that it was inspired by a book my then-eight-year-old son was reading); and “Crotch Rot,” to name just a few.
I also found plays that have been staged that I’d forgotten about. And it was a pleasant surprise to come across my very first plays — “Guest for Dinner” and “Uncle Hem,” both written when I was an undergraduate.
All tolled, I’ve got 54 plays. Twenty-eight of them have been fully produced or workshopped in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, London, Arkansas, Ohio, and other places. I wish I’d kept better records; at this point, I have no idea where “Cloned Cat” was produced (I think it was northern New Jersey; maybe Hoboken), let alone “Man and Woman Set Their Sights” (I’m pretty sure Boston).
Of these 54, I’ve got no fewer than 23 marked for completion or revision. As I said, some of them seem like they’d be quick to finish or fix. Maybe I should start doing that.
Remember this guy?
Now we’ve got this guy.
One didn’t win. The other isn’t going to either. But in the meantime, they’re video stars. Of a sort.