Monday, December 24, 2012

New York At Christmastime

Carnegie Hall, where people know how to dress for the theater

Some people say that New York City is rude, and in fact it's a standing joke in some parts of the country and world:  "So I'm in New York and I ask a local, 'Excuse me, what time is it -- or should I just go f--- myself?'"

I  never understood that, not at all. It's not at all the New York I've ever known, and I've known New York since I was a child.

I worked in New York for a long time, lived in the city, lived in the immediate area for over a quarter century, and as far as I am concerned, New York stands out among the world's great cities for courtesy and good civic will. London? Now, you want a rude city, just consider London. Los Angeles: Rude! Chicago? Rude, and with lousy pizza to boot!

You want a friendly American city, you get that in New York. Only San Francisco, in my estimation, comes even close.

Anyway, my wife and I are fortunate enough to be able to live in the Sonoran desert and still manage to visit New York for a week or so, a couple of times a year, to get what we refer to as our New York fix. This past week was one of those occasions.

Manhattan at Christmastime is an especially congenial place. We met our daughter and young granddaughter, who live in Albany, at the tree outside Rockefeller Center last Friday, a scene thronged with tourists and even locals, any one of whom is delighted to accept your camera and snap a family photo for you. And no, having your camera stolen is not an issue as it would be in, say, one of the world's truly awful cities, like Sao Paulo or Rio or Kiev.

Our daughter and granddaughter went to the Radio City Christmas show, the child's first. Yes, the tickets are expensive, but at least a mother and her daughter get a grand show, high holiday splendor, production values at a level not seen on a stage literally anywhere else, except at grand opera uptown at the Met. On the subject of taking a kid to a holiday show, I sometimes think of Woody Allen's line in "Hannah and Her Sisters," in which he was asked to contemplate reincarnation and Nietzche's theory of eternal recurrence: "Great, that means I'll have to sit through the Ice Capades again."

Nobody would say that about the Radio City and the Rockettes.

My wife and also went twice to the theater during six days here. Once was to Broadway, to see "Cat On a Hot Tin Roof," starring Scarlett Johansson in a revival to which I won't hesitate to attach the word "unfortunate," even though we saw it on the second night of previews. (It opens in January, if it makes it that long).

I was thinking of the Broadway experience yesterday at Carnegie Hall, where we went for a splendid performance of "Messiah." Let me digress and say that several factors keep me from enthusiastically attending a Broadway show these days, among them a concern that any show, especially a straight play, that has a famous star in it, tends to attract an element in the audience that is, let us say, unfamiliar with the protocols of live theater. That is, when Al Pacino makes his entry in the (also unfortunate) revival of David Mamet's tiresome and overrated play "Glengarry Glen Ross," a disconcerting number of theatergoers behave in the way that tourists would behave if a movie star wandered into the little star-print plaza outside Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood. They act like idiots! More generally, audiences these also tend to approach any straight theatrical drama as if it were a television situation comedy. That is, there are all of these automatic titters and chortles at lines and situations that a playwright never imagined would be considered amusing. (That was true at "Cat," incidentally. Not sure that Tennessee Williams thought he was writing a comedy. 

And so many people attending Broadway performances these days dress like they were going to the ballpark, and a ballpark for a losing team at that.  I swear, a big fat guy in row near us, in the expensive seats at the too-big-for-a-drama Richard Rogers Theater during "Cat,"  looked like he was dressed for an off day at the mall, complete with sweatshirt and that tall cup of soda that big fat people always seem to keep jammed in their mitts, as if hydration were a matter of life and death on a December evening in New York.

Anyway, it was with unmitigated delight that I saw how the big crowd was dressed at Carnegie Hall for the "Messiah" we saw on Sunday afternoon. They were dressed nicely, like it was Christmastime and they were in a nice place, with quality entertainment performed at an extremely high level of skill.

Call me a fussy old fart, but frankly, I ain't that old and I ain't that fussy, not really. But I do like to see minimal standards maintained, as they evidently are at Carnegie Hall. People dress like they're going somewhere nice!

Last year, to digress again, I remember reading one of those long-paid obits that  often are the only thing actually worth reading  in our local newspaper in Arizona, which I refer to only as "The Daily Stupid." It was written by a family member about a career Army colonel, a World War II veteran, who had just died. It went on and on, at wonderful detail, about this man's interesting life, but it was the final line of the obituary that delighted me. It said: "He was always on time, and he knew how to dress for dinner."

Anyway, Carnegie Hall, with the Masterwork Chorus and Orchestra "Messiah" performance, was the perfect cap on our latest New York visit.

And yes, the audience knew that it is traditional to stand for the rousing Hallelujah Chorus -- and then sit down quietly again, because, of course, it ain't over yet.

A perfect way, I thought, to say Merry Christmas, from New York.


No comments: