Wednesday, July 27, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Everybody’s a critic!

Peter Ustinov as Nero in "Quo Vadis."
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

Coming Soon "Nero" The Musical?  Also, Michelle Dockery Heads to the Old West ... A Terrific Disaster Film from — Norway! ... Shakespeare in a Parking Lot and our lovely (and un-lovely) fan mail.

“HIDDEN TALENT counts for nothing.”

That’s what the notorious Roman Emperor Nero said. I suppose it was antiquity’s version of not hiding one’s light under a bushel.

Nero thought he had a lot of talent, and he wanted to make sure all of his subjects, in Rome and around the empire, knew it. He thought it was generous of him. Romans weren’t so sure. Everybody’s a critic!
Nero was infamous for a number of things, not the least of which was burning a good deal of Rome to the ground and building a spectacular home — The Golden Palace — upon its ruins. “Now I can begin to live like a human being” Nero said as his fantastic palace rose above the city. Nero’s old digs were pretty impressive, but he felt cramped. Not enough room for his genius.

Maybe Nero didn’t burn Rome — you know how people love to gossip. But he did kill a lot of Christians trying to prove he was innocent of that crime, and even the bloodthirsty Romans thought he was protesting too much. (Not to mention composing a poem to the inferno, and playing the lyre — poorly.)
Nero murdered his mother, Agrippina — who, rumor had it, murdered her hubby, Emperor Claudius to grease the way for her darling boy. Obviously Nero was somewhat wanting in the gratitude gene. He also dispatched two of his wives — one smothered in her bath, the other kicked to death. Nero died before the bloom was off the rose of his third marriage, to a good-looking guy named Pythagoras. (He probably didn’t have to sign a pre-nup, either. Men!)
Agrippina crowning her young son Nero (c. 54–59 AD).
Nero killed a lot of other people, but really he just wanted to be appreciated for his art. He would love today’s celebrity culture, because he liked nothing more than attention, a captive (literally) audience. He’d be BFF’s with Kim Kardashian and Taylor Swift, and probably would not take sides in their absurd Twitter feuds. (Nero would love Twitter!) I doubt, however, that Kanye West would survive. The singer/mogul/nuisance talks too much about how great he is. In Nero’s world, one untalented narcissist was plenty.

Nero was assassinated before he could mount another concert tour. His last words were, “What an artist dies with me.”
The Death of Nero.
I’ve given you this tale of grisly history because there’s a Broadway-bound musical based on the life and times of the emperor being readied. It’s titled “Nero” and recently there was a 35-minute preview of the show, here in New York at the Playroom Theater.

Andromeda Turre.
The book and music have been written by Australia’s Graeme McEwen and some of the ditties were performed by an aptly named Andromeda Turre, along with John Arthur Greene, Michael Lanning and Jonathan Shew. The mini-version was directed by award-winning Warren Wills, another Aussie.

Call me crazy, but I love the idea of a Nero musical! If Sondheim can make “Sweeney Todd” (and his grisly meat pies) a palatable subject, why not the brief but action filled life of one of Rome’s most notorious characters? After all, Caligula, who was even worse — and didn’t play any instruments or act — has a movie. Caligula married his favorite horse, or at least made the beast a member of his counsel.

Well, they are very intelligent creatures! (If you haven’t seen 1979’s “Caligula” scripted by Gore Vidal and directed by Bob Guccione of Penthouse fame, you’re missing out on a lot, not the least a young, gorgeous Helen Mirren. But don’t blame her for the hard-core sex scenes in that film. They were added on later. Although knowing the raucous Dame Helen, I doubt she cares much. Also, she still looks so damn sexy that comparisons to her younger self are not onerous.)
And if the “Nero” composer can’t come up with an appropriate song for the burning of Rome, how about a mash-up of Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” and Irving Berlin’s “Heat Wave.” There is no disgrace in falling back on the masters, for a really big “shew” as Ed Sullivan would say.
“A MONKEY will type out the Bible if you leave it long enough,” so said “Downton Abbey’s” Lady Mary Crawley when told of her sister Edith’s plans to launch a magazine.

Dear Mary. Played by the divine Michelle Dockery, Mary was one of the most popular and detested characters on the late lamented “DA.” Whenever I wrote in a positive manner about Mary, my mail was heavily split — all those who thought she was a raging bitch and hated her; and the others who thought she was a raging bitch and loved her for it. (Reminiscent of Madonna’s fans, now that I think of it.) I never considered Mary a bitch; simply a woman of her time and place and money who mustered up quite a bit of sensitivity for those “beneath” her, if not exactly cuddly with her intimates. I enjoyed her honesty. And she was lovely to look at.
Now comes word that Miss D. will star in a new series for Netflix, titled “Godless” with Jeff Daniels and young, sexy Jack O' Connell. (Moviegoers saw him recently in "Unbroken" and "Money Monster.")  The show takes place in the Old West, and Dockery is a ranch-owner, coping with outlaws. I hope she channels Barbara Stanwyck in that grand lady’s many westerns not to mention her famous role as the matriarch of TV’s “The Big Valley.” Give a girl a firm corset, a pair of six-shooters, a good sunscreen and she can rule the world. Looking forward to this!
Jack O'Connell — he'll be dueling with Michelle Dockery in "Godless."
P.S. Speaking of Netflix, I caught a surprisingly excellent Norwegian disaster movie the other day, titled “The Wave.” I know — Norwegian. But, hey, they’re entitled! It is beautifully photographed, very decently acted, tense, atmospheric and the CGI is excellent. (This cannot have been a gazillion dollar production, but it doesn’t look cheap.) So surprisingly good! Better, in many ways than mega-budget American offerings such as “2012” or “San Andreas.” Of course there are the usual disaster-movie clichés, but I think these are inbred and expected. Oh, and watch the subtitled version. The English dubbing is awful.
THE DRILLING Company’s Shakespeare in the Parking Lot offers, this summer, its unique take on “The Merchant of Venice.” This company has been producing the works of The Bard for 21 years, and yes, in a parking lot! The Clemente Parking Lot, 114 Norfolk Street. (East side of Norfolk, between Delancey and Rivington.)

Jane Bradley as Portia, David Marantz as Shylock, James Davies as Antonio.
David Marantz, who will play Shylock, the money-lender, and who is also the Associate Artistic Director of The Drilling Company has taken unusual care with his performance and the overall interpretation of the show, which has been seen occasionally, as anti-Semitic — especially as his “Merchant” is being performed in a historically Jewish neighborhood. Having attended several of these parking lot productions in recent years, I feel assured that it will be handled with typical creativity by director Ezra Barnes.

Jane Bradley appears as the beautiful, willful and self-possessed heiress, Portia, whose quality of mercy is not strained. There are about 20 other cast members — too many to list, although I have no doubt all are splendid, if my past experience with this group is any indication. “The Merchant of Venice” runs from July 28th to August 13th. Call 212-873-9050 or go to This is not quite as grand as Shakespeare in Central Park, but it is another one of those unique and uniquely satisfying New York experiences. And, it’s Shakespeare. Get yourself some culture. It can’t hurt. Honest.
Bryant Park from the stage of The Drilling Company.
ENDQUOTE: “Maybe in a normal election year people might be allowed to ask you to ‘stick to entertainment.’ But this is not a normal election year. There is too much at stake to stay silent and I’m proud that your column speaks out and tells the truth. A little Trump, a little Madonna (or whomever) a little show biz history — it’s a recipe that works for this reader. Thanks, Dennis Hammer.”

That is one of the numerous encouraging emails I received in the wake of last week’s column on “The Art of the Deal” author Tony Schwartz and his regrets over having written Mr. Trump’s “bible.” Of course, along with support, I’ve also received missives along the lines of “You liberals are pathetic” ... I am tired of your views” ... You’re not a political genius” ... I am disappointed” ... ”Retire, now!” ... and my favorite, the perennial “Stick to the only thing you know, gossip!”

Over the decades I have received THAT one so many times I’m having it stitched onto a pillow.

Again, I appreciate all my readers, even those who don’t agree with me. We will all just have to deal with whoever gets into the White House next year. Let’s keep our powder dry and remember the words of Michelle Obama on Monday night: “This, right now, is the greatest country on earth.”

Contact Liz here.