At The Menier Chocolate Factory on Thursday night to review Nicky Silver’s wonderfully irreverent The Lyons for The American. Fantastic night of theater, but I kept wondering to myself if I was being slightly petty.
The play was set in a hospital. A New York Jewish matriarch, Rita, is passing the time while her husband Ben (played with a touching simplicity by Nicholas Day) waits until cancer finally eats the last dregs of life away from him. Isla Blair plays Rita, who could hardly be called long-suffering she suffers very little and doesn’t let her husband’s death agony get in the way of her picking a new theme to redecorate the living room in after he’s gone. There was a wonderfully callous quality to the comic rhythm of the contrapuntal exchange between the pair. The problem I had though was that, clearly talented though Blair is as an actress, I found it slightly jarring that she hadn’t got her head quite wrapped around the American accent. Certain moments just seemed to slip carelessly to the floor when they were clearly aimed to precisely slot neatly into a Eugene O’Neill-esque rhythmic jigsaw of grim jollity because of the occasional blips and gaps between Blair’s delivery and the alternate course the line seemed to want to take.
Perhaps what made it jarring was that the other actors seemed to have got it so perfectly down. I had seen Tom Ellis as a raspy voiced villain in Merlin and as a mild-mannered physician in Doctor Who, so I was pleasantly shocked by how well he was able to slip so naturally into and convey a sense of insecurity in Rita and Ben’s gay short story writer son, Curtis, lankily edging around the stage, raging in brittle nasal Manhattanite tones.
Yet my friend who had accompanied me who actually is English, thought the opposite, that Blair sounded completely natural, but that knowing Ellis was British made him constantly question whether the actor was pulling it off.
It’s all academic obviously. I still can’t do accents. I’m still useless at distinguishing a New Zealand accent from an Aussie one. I’ve acquired the habit of asking the barista over the counter where her North Atlantic twang is from (Canadians get ever so slightly offended when they get confused for us. We think it’s quaint and charming when the opposite happens, go figure).
And accents are tricky things. I harbor a secret, minor contempt for expats whose accents change and yet I often get confused for Irish. My wife was once mistaken for American in a pizza parlor in New York and yet the same person thought I was an Irishman. The consequences of over a decade’s influence on each other. I have met expats whose accents retain the same strong native quality as the homeland from whence they came thirty years before. And my high school students have mistaken my accent for anything from Welsh to South African.
But I do wonder if British actors, aurally fed for years on the ubiquity of American film and TV, which, in all but a few exceptional circumstances tends to offer up characters speaking in a broadly neutral, accessible and unspecific plains talk, have taken too much for granted concerning the ease and homogeneity in our accents. It’s an easy mistake to make. I don’t think I realised just how various are the ways we talk until I was 21 and I left the country for the first time.
As one of the characters in another brilliant play, Brian Friel’s Translations, says in response to a request to teach another character English, “I will provide you with the available words and the available grammar. But will that help you to interpret between privacies? I have no idea.”
Was I being too picky? In the magic of the theater, I should be able to suspend my disbelief and look beyond. After all, every critic from The Telegraph to The Camden Journal will have raved by now about masterful performances by both Ellis and Blair, which, to be sure, they both gave, despite feeling like the rest of the audience was a bit more “with” Rita than I was, especially at her departure from the stage, for which many clapped, but felt to me like one of the only cringeworthy moments, a hit more Gloria Gaynor/ Aretha Franklin a la R-E-S-P-E-C-T than taking seriously a woman who doesn’t want to waste her twilight years. But I do think that actors, more than many, need to be mindful of the nuances in the way we talk, especially if they want us to “buy in” to the persona they present to us.
Sure a masterful performance can impress and compel and rivet, but in a play that depends so much on private family tragedies, does it help us to “interpret between privacies” of the characters on stage or the individuals we meet in our travels? I’m not so sure.
“Isn’t this so exciting?” I am giddy.
We are at the BBC Studios in London for a Radio 4 recording. Radio 4 recordings rank among my favorite things to do in London (that and listening to Radio 4 in the morning while thinking snooty thoughts about all the other commuters on the train, but that is a different blog post). It keeps the “entertainment” budget down and is always a blast.
I am whispering in the hushed tones of a sweaty palmed schoolgirl about to meet Harry Styles. As it happens, I am not about to meet Harry Styles. I am about to meet David Sedaris, author of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and When You Are Engulfed In Flames as well as many other canonical classics. He is my expat writing idol. We are here to watch him record another series of readings for the BEEB’s next season of Meet David Sedaris. Initially excited at the prospect of having my favorite book of his, Me Talk Pretty One Day, signed by the man himself, I could now feel my nerves gathering. We had arrived so early that our timing bordered on unfashionable; such was our fear that we’d be turned away because of Sedaris’ popularity.
I had also expected the book signing to be afterwards in some chaotic rush waiting at the “stage door” like some stadium rock concert. Contrary to this, when the kind employees of the BBC usher us in, we are given a choice: directly into the theatre to the right or the line to the left if you have anything you want signed. And there, sitting behind a modest table and chatting affably to attendees who had brought books to sign was David Sedaris, smiling broadly as though his favorite thing to do of a Sunday afternoon was to shoot the breeze with his readers and sign autographs. I get to meet him sooner than I expected, I think, but what will I say? I haven’t even had time to come up with anything witty or even competent.
Further adding to my discombobulation is the man in front of us in the line, who is (some might say selfishly) squeezing as many precious moments of time as he could out of his encounter. “So sorry about this,” he says. “I’ve brought these for my book club.” He piles onto the table six thick volumes that might as well be The Collected Works of David Sedaris. I do hope the book club appreciate the effort, I think to myself. And the time.
“That’s okay,” David reassures, “Nobody minds.” His kindly eyes look sincere, but I’m not sure he means it. I raise my eyebrows to the missus, who looks at me admonishingly.
Book Club Man walks into the theatre door, his volumes bulging from his rucksack.
It’s our turn.
“Hey, we’re both wearing corduroy jackets! What do you think of that?” Already Sedaris has thrown me a curveball by remarking on our sartorial similarities.
“Quite. A. Co-inc-i-Denice?” I say, standing smiling stupidly, frozen in headlights. Uncharactieristically, I find myself a bit starstruck. The man is making polite conversation and I am acting like he’s thrown a mind-clearing zen riddle at me. Plus, my voice sounds a half octave higher than it should. Whether it’s to match Sedaris’ own high-pitched strain or anxiety, I’m not sure. I cast around mentally for a response to redeem myself and my mother-in-law’s favorite aphorism about how, “great minds think alike… And fools seldom differ!” comes to mind, but I discard it since it sounds just as foolish as what I’ve already said, which is not much.
Irish people generally and large numbers of Britons pride themselves on passing celebrities in the street with casual indifference. It’s one of the reasons why artists and musicians love spending time in Ireland (that and they pay no income tax). One Irishman famously refused to vacate an elevator for President Clinton’s visit to the Guiness Brewery in Dublin uttering, “Sure, who’s he that I should have to move for the likes of him?”
It’s one of the nicer qualities I thought I had acquired having lived over twelve years with an Irish person. According to my Irish wife, we have passed British actress Denise Van Outen, Spice Girl Gerri Halliwell, and no less a demigod of Broadway and The West End than Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber (yes, he is a lord, lil’ crazy, huh?) in the streets of this fair metropolis. They could be nobodies or (worse yet) anonymous estate agents for all the notice I took of them at the time. In fact the only thing that strikes me as memorable about any of those encounters is the way Paula gleefully observed how plain Denise Van Outen looked, which, apparently, “just goes to show it’s all makeup and airbrushing.”
Still, for all my celebrity nonchalance, here I was in front of David Sedaris, a man whose writing I found both riotously funny and also felt deeply “connected” to, amusing and poignant at times in equal measure, standing. Mute. Smiling like the village idiot.
I’m from Pennsylvania.
I’ve seen a lot of village idiots.
“We would like you to inscribe it to our son,” we manage to tell him before I go dumbstruck. “He’s six, so of course your writing is entirely inappropriate for him now, but we’re sure he’ll appreciate it when he’s older.”
“Any other children?”
“No, just the one.”
“Well, you’re going to have another one in 2015,” Sedaris confidently predicts. “The ultrasound will say it’s a girl, but it will actually be a boy, and although he will have an incredibly small penis, he’ll get on really well in life, great personality, wonderfully talented and you’ll name him… Congressman! Yes, you’ll name him Congressman.” I have to admit, at least until halfway through, he had us with his predictive powers, and now he has us and the rest of the line of attendees waiting for autographs in tears laughing. You either appreciate David Sedaris’ sense of humor or you don’t, like the marmite of memoir funny men. Paula jokes with him about how our son is half-American and how we were once told by American Embassy staff that he could be president legally if he wanted to. “or Congressman!” quips Sedaris. “Or Congressman!” repeats Paula, who seems to suffer from no similar case of starststruckness.
I am reminded of the time when I was 15 and I stalked Michael Stipe for three blocks down South Street in Philly, my friends reluctantly in tow, to finally follow him into the since closed Rhino Cafe, shake his hand and tell him what a great inspiration his music was and would always be to me. Yet here I stand before an eloquent and witty writer in a state of paralysis.
Sedaris gives us our signed copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day, we thank him, and we walk into the theatre. As we sit at the back with Paula still raving about how funny and strange he is at the same time, I half- distractedly open the book and read the inscription:
I knew your parents when they were young.
Well played, Mr Sedaris. Well played indeed.
“Ah well,” I sigh. “I wanted to say so much to him.” And it’s true. I did.
“Oh, Pete,” Paula says with effortless condescension. “Probably best that you didn’t.”
The lights dim, the producer announces the show, I sit back, resigned to the fact that she is probably right.
– – – – –
If you’ve never read David Sedaris’ writing before, do get your hands on some of his stuff, post-haste. I heartily recommend Me Talk Pretty One Day, a book that has caused me to utter embarrassingly loud guffaws on the train. By myself.
And if you are in London or indeed anywhere in the UK for any extended period of time, get yourself on the BBC mailing list for free tickets to live recordings. They’re bags of fun and they’re free!