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Intiman stumbles with Magical Thinking - Ruby Bishop update

by Milton W. Hamlin - SGN A&E Writer

It seems to Bits&Bytes that all of the Emerald City's arts organizations are starting their fall season in the next 10 days, and that many of the groups with calendar seasons are winding up their programming. Read on:

INTIMAN STUMBLES WITH BROADWAY'S YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING
Joan Didion's The Year Of Magical Thinking, her incredibly personal tale of the death of her beloved husband, was a runaway bestseller in book form. The 2005 release won the National Book Award and the Broadway adaptation looked like another winner. Didion, writing her first stage play, adapted her bestseller, but, alas, even the combination of Vanessa Redgrave and a very limited run could not turn the 2007 stage adaptation into a financial hit. At the time of the play's premiere, some theater critics speculated that Didion might not have been the best playwright to adapt the memoir for the stage.

Intiman Theatre, Seattle's 2006 Tony Award-winning outstanding regional theatre, added The Year Of Magical Thinking to its 2009 season and the production, which continues through September 20, was highly anticipated. Alas, the resulting production - which has many, many strengths - is a lumbering, often lackluster affair. Much of the problem is with the script itself. Add in medical problems with the leading lady, the sole actor on stage, who had no understudy. Blend in a postponed press opening night and continued medical problems, and it's really hard to evaluate what went wrong.

The play itself has little humor, and, to be truthful, little insight into the grieving process. John Gregory Dunne, Didion's husband and writing collaborator of nearly 40 years, literally dropped dead on December 30, 2003. They were sitting down to a light supper after a day out on the town and he slumped over dead. Earlier heart problems, including a major heart operation laughingly called "the widowmaker" by hospital surgeons, had supposedly corrected his heart weaknesses. In the year that followed, Didion suspended the truth but secretly, in her "magical thinking," truly believed she could call back time and "fix it all." One of the most revealing moments is when she packs her dead husband's clothing up to give it to charities. The clothing was no problem, but she couldn't bear to part with his shoes - "he would need them when he came back," she noted, realizing that her thought process made no sense. To add to the tragedy, their adult daughter was seriously ill and would die while Didion was writing the book about her husband's death.

While there is some enlightenment and a little bit of the all-important catharsis - the Greek concept of purging the soul - much of the script is a dour affair. The few moments of humor that crept into the script were actively seized on by the eager audience at the press opening night, postponed a week because of a medical emergency. That emergency turned out to be some sort of flu, head cold, and respiratory problem with Judith Roberts, the New York-based actress playing Didion. While she missed no performances, Roberts, an Intiman and ACT veteran, was still fighting whatever the problem was at the delayed press opening. Still obviously "under the weather," Roberts was obviously fighting something - a coughing fit interrupted her performance. She crossed the set and found a glass of water, a prop for another scene, and, strangely, broke character, it seemed, by toasting the audience. A frantic search for a Kleenex in another scene had taken the focus off the character and onto the illness of the actress. Word stumbles and line reversals continued off and on throughout the evening.

Amazingly, Intiman had no listed understudy for the one-woman show - a "what were they thinking?" error of the highest magnitude. After the opening, Intiman did announce that Lori Larsen, a Seattle favorite, would appear in the role at select performances the last two weeks. Season subscribers - and fans of the very talented Larsen - can catch Larsen in Intiman's evening performances on September 12,13,16, and 19.

It seems almost unfair to critique the direction of Sarna Lapine, a young woman who has been an assistant director to Bartlett Sher on three New York productions. Sher, of course, is the outgoing artistic director of Intiman who has made a big name for himself - and for Intiman - in his New York work at Lincoln Center and at the Metropolitan Opera.

The production features beautiful set and lighting designs. Maybe the theatrical gods will bless the remaining performances and future audiences will be able see the show that Intiman hoped to mount for its loyal season subscribers. As it is now, The Year Of Magical Thinking is a disappointment.

Ticket information and reservations are available at (206) 269-1900. Budget-minded theater fans should ask about student/senior discounts, "rush" prices and other discounts.

LAINE, DANKWORTH DELIGHT AT JAZZ ALLEY, BUSY MONTH AHEAD
Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, celebrating 50 years of marriage and musical appearances together, breezed into Jazz Alley last week for a delightful Thursday-through-Sunday stay. Billed as the "First Couple of British Jazz," the frequent Seattle visitors clearly charmed their capacity opening night crowd.

Recovering from a broken leg suffered over the last Christmas holiday season, Laine, at 82, quipped a lot about her "six months of hell," but sang with full voice. It was, of course, a night to remember.

One observation: There were no cell phones ringing, no table chatter, no flash photography, no disruptive element oblivious to the artistic highs of the evening. A welcome, mature, appreciate audience. Let's hope that behavior continues in the Alley's busy month ahead.

RUBY BISHOP REVIVES BRUNCH SCHEDULE AT MARTINS OFF MADISON
For several years, Ruby Bishop, often called "Seattle's Queen Of The Keyboards," has played Monday nights at Martins Off Madison, the Gay-owned and primarily Gay-staffed restaurant and piano bar at 14th, and, yes, off Madison, where there is music every night. Bishop, who will turn 90 in December, has also played Sunday brunch, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Her brunch schedule has recently been revised, and she will now play only the first Sunday of every month. That makes her next appearance the first Sunday in October. Mark your calendars now.

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