Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tour de Force

Looking west between Central Park West and Columbus. 4:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Last night in New York.  I started out at Tiffany where they were holding a book party for author James Patterson and his new book “Sundays at Tiffany.” Mr. Patterson, most famous for his mysteries, has sold 150 million books worldwide. This is what you would call a successful author. (And a very rich one.) In person, however, Mr. Patterson is a most unassuming individual in manner that if I hadn’t known otherwise, when I was taking his picture with Liz Smith, I might have thought he was just another of her many fans.

The Howja-do’s. The party was held on the ground floor of the famous store. I had gone there especially to meet Liz who had invited me to go to the theatre with her. Knowing few of the guests, I struck up a conversation with a lovely young woman named Deneen Howell who happened to be from Washington. Questioning her about what brought her to New York, she told me she was a lawyer and that James Patterson was a client. A lawyer who represented writers.
Liz Smith and author James Patterson
Deneen Howell
Sandra McConnell and John Loring
Sandi Mendelsohn and Sarah Nelson
Then she pointed out a man a few feet away whom she said she worked with. His name was Bob Barnett. That was a name I knew: Mr. Barnett is one of the most famous literary agent/lawyers in the business, representing among others, both Bill and Hillary Clinton, Bob Woodward and Alan Greenspan in their multimillion dollar book deals.

Mr. Barnett was with his wife Rita Braver whom I also recognized as the correspondent for the CBS Sunday Morning show. Mrs. Barnett introduced me to her daughter and son-in-law (I think she said he was her son in law):  Meredith Barnett and David Penn. I asked if I could take their picture. They asked what it was for. I told them. Mr. and Mrs. Barnett went blank but their daughter said: “Oh! New York Social Diary!” A girl after my own heart.
Bob Barnett and Rita Braver Barnett
David Penn and Meredith Barnett
After that Liz and I had to leave to make the 8 o’clock curtain. Frankly I had no idea what I was going to see. When Liz asked me, because I rarely get to the theatre and because Liz is a Broadway Baby at heart, and misses little, I knew it would be current and something I hadn’t seen.

It was: Laurence Fishburne in “Thurgood,” a one man show about Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall at the Booth Theatre. Named, ironically, for the brother of the man who shot Lincoln.

One man shows can be tricky. An hour and forty-five minutes without an intermission. The play was written by George Stevens Jr. This is Mr. Steven’s first play although he is by no means a novice. Son of the famous film director of the same name, Mr. Stevens grew up in Hollywood. A founder of the American Film Institute, he is a writer, director and producer and published a book with Knopf a couple of years ago, “Conversations With the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age” (his father’s era) which I highly recommend if you’re a film buff or aspiring director.

Mr. Stevens has won several awards (and has produced the Kennedy Center Awards too) including Writer’s Guild, George Foster Peabody Awards and 11 (!) Emmys. He told me after we were introduced last night that the play “Thurgood” came out of interest in the man after he wrote and directed “Separate But Equal,” the story of Brown Vs. Board of Education school desegregation case on which Thurgood Marshall was the lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1952.

Laurence Fishburne needs no introduction. He is a movie star. Although, last night when he first appeared on stage (which is set up as if a stage in the auditorium of Howard University), he seemed quite a bit older than I’d realized. As Thurgood Marshall, he begins his lecture to “the student body” (us), and it soon becomes a recounting of the story of his life.

The story of  Thurgood Marshall is riveting, touching, funny, heroic and deeply human. Laurence Fishburne portrays him so authentically as the giant and the humanitarian that he was that you are certain this is the way the man was in real life.

The hour and forty-five with no intermission flew by as we listened and lived several lives with him making history. The actor made an interesting character transition from an older, mature, distinguished lawyer to a much older, distinguished Supreme Court Justice at the very end of his career after a half century in the legal profession.

This is a story about a hero. This is a story about the best of America – the hope part; and a tour de force of a performance. The only thing troubling is that after it opens tonight (we saw it in the last preview), you will have only 16 weeks to see Laurence Fishburne create his portrait of one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century. Although, I was told his contract might allow him to extend his stay in the show for an additional four weeks. If you cry at the end (and you will laugh during the show), it’s okay: they will be tears of joy.

At the end of the show (there’s no curtain) Mr. Fishburne received a standing ovation and cheers and cheers poured out of the audience.

I had the privilege afterwards of going backstage with Liz while George Stevens took us up to the star’s dressing room. It wasn’t more than fifteen minutes after the show ended. The dressing room was very small and basic. There was a couple visiting with Mr. Fishburne who was not only already out of costume, but in his jeans and jacket and looking like an exuberant young man who bore hardly any resemblance to the man we’d just seen on the stage. The magic called theatre.

Timely, it is, in many ways. A joy, a lesson, and a gift from a great actor and a great playwright. But remember time is not on your side: you have 16 weeks; 20 max, to catch it at the Booth on 45th and Broadway right by Shubert Alley.

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