Anatol at the Aurora

Anatol at the Aurora was terrific. Mike Ryan is both adorable and exasperating as Anatol — he made me believe that women would keep falling in love with Anatol and also made me believe that women would keep breaking up with him. Tim Kniffin as Max is funny and quite a bit more acid than I’ve imagined Max to be when I’ve read the play.

Delia MacDougall is really brilliant and often hilarious as six of Anatol’s lovers — a different one in each scene. Her performance is partly a tour de force and partly a quick-change stunt, and I’m not sure that in my ideal production I wouldn’t rather see two or three women splitting the roles, but she pulls off the six roles with great style and assurance.

She’s especially touching as an former lover of Anatol’s in a chance encounter on Christmas Eve, and especially hilarious as a ballerina eagerly wolfing down the expensive after-performance supper of oysters and champagne and Sacher torte that Anatol is buying her, determined to enjoy it even though the two of them are quarreling all through the meal, for she knows that the relationship is ending and that it will probably be her last fancy supper for a long time, and she can’t bear not to savor it.

Barbara Oliver’s staging is lovely, inventive and lively, but at the same time simple and direct. (I was misremembering before, though, when I said she directed that wonderful Vanya — welcome to late middle age, Scott. She was in it but did not direct it.)

Seeing the play in performance for my first time, I found that some parts of it seemed fairly facile to me again, just as the whole play had when I first read it in college. While I like the play much better now than I did in college, I can see why I felt the way I did. Some of it is predictable stuff. The first scene in particular seems that way to me, taking a fair amount of time to reach a conclusion that is telegraphed early on, and I think it gets the play off to a weak start.

But along with the sometimes-too-pat plotting is a lot of wonderful insight into a character who is maddingly, hilariously oblivious to his own nature and how he sabotages himself in his relationships with women.

The play is in seven unconnected vignettes; in this production one is dropped and the order of the others is slightly changed — probably in large part to make Ms. MacDougall’s changes of costume and character more manageable. Nothing wrong with any of that, but as long as they were switching things around, I do kind of wish that they’d dropped the first vignette instead. The vignette they don’t use involves Anatol’s affair with a married woman, and to me it has a bracing bleakness to it — on the page, anyway — that the other scenes don’t have, even the bittersweet Christmas Eve scene, and it makes an affecting contrast with the comedy of most of the scenes.

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Mustard and Ketchup

Neat article in the food section of today’s Contra Costa Times about homemade condiments — flavored mustards, mayonnaises, and ketchups. Mmm.

I don’t care much for mayonnaise, but I’ve been making homemade mustard every now and then for a long time now. It’s very easy, and you can even whip up a batch in about 90 seconds and use it on sandwiches at once; while it won’t be as yummy as if you let it sit for a while, it’ll still have a great, fresh, bright flavor. (Just grind some mustard seeds to a powder and add a few drops of liquid to make a paste. That’s it. Use yellow seeds or brown seeds — which are hotter — or a mix of the two, use whatever kind of vinegar or wine or sake sounds good at the moment, maybe add a pinch of salt and/or any other spice that sounds good with the sandwich you’re making. Improvise! Yum!)

I don’t like ketchup, at least not the commercial kind — it’s too sweet for my taste and if you look at the label you’ll find out why — but I’ve never tried making my own, and I suspect I might like ketchup a lot more if it were savory rather than sweet. Doesn’t sound that hard, though if you make it from fresh tomatoes instead of sauce it takes a long, long simmer. Maybe that’ll be a project for a weekend sometime soon.

Listener Statistics

One of the things most amazing to me about the Listener puzzle is that, even though prizes go only to the first three entries drawn at random each week, every entry is checked, and a full record is kept of how each individual solver does through the year. Given that there must be a thousand or so people who submit at least one entry during the year, this seems both wonderful and awfully obsessive-compulsive to me. And a tribute to the cult-like following that the Listener crossword has acquired over the decades.

Around the end of each March, you can send in a self-addressed stamped envelope and receive a ten-page report about the previous year’s puzzles. This report lists:

  • all the year’s puzzles, identified by number, name, and constructor, along with statistics about how many correct and incorrect entries were received for each and how many of those entries were from new solvers
  • a list of the most common errors made in each puzzle
  • the top 200 or so solvers, along with the numbers of the puzzles (if any) they got wrong
  • a table summarizing how many of the people who sent in x errors during the year got y correct (for example, of the seven people who sent in exactly 27 entries during the year, one got 26 correct and two each got 25, 21, and 20 correct, and what possible interest there is in these data I cannot fathom)
  • a report of the annual dinner that is held for the constructors (in British terminology, setters) of that year’s Listener puzzles, which many solvers also attend

I made the list of top solvers this year (yay!), getting only three puzzles wrong out of the year’s 53. The first page of the list is taken up by those who made none, one, or two errors, so my three are enough that I only make it to the second page. And not even near the top of the second page! Those who miss the same number of puzzles are further ranked by when they made their errors (the longer your string of correct solutions from the beginning of the year, the better), and as I made my first error on the second puzzle of the year, I am near the bottom of those who made three errors. I haven’t yet counted exactly where I am in the rankings, but it looks like somewhere around 70th or 75th. Not a dazzling performance, but not too bad.

I knew about one of the errors already — while looking at the published solution to one of the puzzles, I spotted that I’d put in the wrong spelling of an archaic word that has several spellings given in Chambers Dictionary, apparently having never taken the time to go back and double-check that my chosen spelling fit the wordplay in the clue (it didn’t quite). As this puzzle was late in the year, my excuse is that I was preoccupied with finishing The Manga Flute. But the other two errors were a surprise, both of them looking like silly copying errors I must have made when preparing my entry.

Into the stapled packet of photocopied pages is folded a single, additional, loose piece of paper. It is a list of the exact errors that you personally made during the year — yes, it really tells you that you got 18 Across wrong on this puzzle and 25 Down wrong on that puzzle and so on. Do you not find it both wonderful and freaky that, in this day and age, there is somebody in England, who cannot possibly be getting more than a modest stipend at best for all this, who week in and week out is actually keeping track of these things for a thousand or so solvers, and will send you your individual stats for the year just for a self-addressed stamped envelope? Overseas solvers like me don’t even have to send stamps, just the self-addressed envelope.

But even this is not the part I find most wonderful and freakiest of all. It is that this list of your own personal errors is neatly written out — yes, I mean by hand — on a sheet of lined paper, the three-hole looseleaf notebook kind. Amazing. Just amazing.

“Ballad”

I finished this Friday’s Listener crossword, “Ballad” by Elgin, late Saturday morning after a longer struggle than usual.

It’s a tough puzzle. The across clues aren’t given entry numbers for the grid, and they are listed not in order of their appearance but in the alphabetical order of their answers. Now, this actually helps a lot in solving them: You can figure that a clue, say, about a third of the way down in the list probably starts with a letter around F or G or H. Then as you find some of the answers, that helps narrow down the possibilities for the rest; if one answer is GENERAL and the answer two clues down is GOLDFISH, then you know that the answer to the clue between them starts with a G and the second letter is somewhere between E and O, which probably means GE, GH, GI, GL, GN, or GO. So even without any help from crossing letters, the possibilities for the across clues narrow pretty rapidly, and it wasn’t all that long before I had close to half of them solved.

However, you could solve all the across answers and still not know where to put any of them in the grid. For that, you need help from some down clues. Down clues are ordered normally, so once you solve one you know exactly where in the grid to place it. But you don’t get any help from crossing letters till you’ve placed a few of the across answers, and you can’t place any of the across answers till you’ve solved some of the down answers, so you have to solve at least a handful of the down clues without any help from crossing letters before you can start filling in any of the grid.

But on top of that, the across answers may be entered either left to right or right to left, and there are no vertical bars to show where across entries begin and end, so that has to be deduced as you go along, and there are additional strange things in the instructions about a missing column in the grid and two across answers that have to be entered overlapping and some unknown number of across answers that aren’t entered in the grid at all, and these things also have to be figured out as you go along.

And on top of that, the clues are a lot harder than usual, though inventive and fair, I’d say. So all in all I found filling the grid to be a slo-o-o-o-ow, gradual process.

I didn’t figure out what the theme of the puzzle was until I’d just about finished filling the grid. But it’s a delightful surprise to discover the theme and see how it is worked into the puzzle in several amusing ways, justifying all the odd things about the puzzle. Everything comes together very satisfyingly. All in all, a tough puzzle, but worth the struggle.

There are a few clues where I know from the completed grid that I must have the right answer but I still don’t understand the wordplay. For another clue, I think I understand the wordplay but the clue seems to involve an alternative spelling that, while perfectly familiar to me, is nevertheless not given in Chambers Dictionary, or at least in the iPhone version (the only version that I have the latest edition in). That seems like it shouldn’t be kosher according to the rules of the Listener puzzle, but I’m not really sure.

Showing My Age

I just caught myself saying “Looks like we’re on the same wavelength” to a man who is easily young enough to be my son. My god, am I establishing myself as an old fart or what? Hey Grampa, that’s a ham radio metaphor! That is ancient technology!

Obviously I should have said “Looks like we’re on the same page”.

Anatol

Over the last few days I’ve reread Schnitzler’s play Anatol, to get ready for the Aurora Theater production which we’re planning to see.

I don’t think I’ve looked at the play since my twenties. If I remember correctly, I was actually looking for a copy of Reigen (meaning Round Dance, but best known in English as La Ronde after the movie version), which I’d seen a production of, and while I was browsing through some used-book store or other, I came across the Modern Library edition of some of Schnitzler’s plays, including Anatol. Some time later I came across a wonderful little book of the published letters between an experienced actress and a young man just starting out, in which she writes about the art of acting in comedy, and she uses the last scene of Anatol as the basis for many of her examples, so I was glad to have a copy of the play handy.

Still, I don’t remember thinking much of the play when I was younger. My recollection is that I thought it was arch and facile, going after paradoxes and contradictions for easy laughs at the expense of believable characterization.

Oh my. Well, what can I say, I was in my twenties and didn’t understand much about human nature yet. On rereading it, I find that the paradoxes and contradictions in the play seem very true to me of how people actually are. Just not true of the way we think we are when we’re in our twenties. The way Schnitzler pokes fun at Anatol’s self-imposed delusions — with affection and understanding, perhaps, but unsparingly all the same — reminds me a lot now of Chekhov and Ibsen. (I know, I know, Ibsen??? But in my middle age I have come to think of both of them as two of the greatest comic playwrights ever.) The director of Anatol, Barbara Oliver, directed the sharpest and at the same time the funniest Uncle Vanya I think I’ve ever seen a few years ago, so I’m expecting that she’ll do right by Schnitzler, too, and I’m greatly looking forward to the play. (Later: Whoops. Ms. Oliver was in that production but did not direct it. I’m getting forgetful in my advancing age, I fear. That doesn’t change the fact that Barbara Oliver is a longtime favorite director of mine and Dave’s.)

I was struck by how similar Anatol is in structure and theme to the musical Company. Anatol has no story; it’s just a series of seven vignettes, each showing Anatol’s relationship with a different woman. Taken all together, they’re a shrewd and funny and rather sad portrait of a man who is completely deluded about love, who wallows in his illusions about it and refuses to give them up even when it should be obvious that they are not serving him well. As a result, even though he thinks of himself as an expert on love and the human heart, he’s completely barricaded himself off from any genuine love in his life.

One considerable difference is that in Company Bobby eventually comes to see through the lies he tells himself and makes a psychological breakthrough — and it’s by far the least convincing part of the story. Anatol gets to the end of his play having not learned a thing; the only real difference between the first scene of the play and the last is that at the end Anatol has gotten himself into a much bigger mess than he ever has before. Yet I find the ending of Anatol very satisfying, at least in the reading of it, and after seeing the show several times I still find the ending of Company a real letdown.

But I’ve never seen Anatol staged before, so I’ll have to see how I think it works once I’ve seen it in performance.

Curiously, Anatol has much more in common with Company than it does with The Gay Life, AKA The High Life, the 1950s musical that was ostensibly based on it. I’ve never seen the show and I don’t have a copy of its book, so everything I know about the story is from a couple of synopses I’ve read. But it looks like they basically threw out the play, threw out most of the characters, threw out everything the play is about, and replaced it all with a rather trite, sentimental story about a playboy who is in the end reformed by an innocent young woman who loves him. Blech. Why bother with the pretense of adapting a play if you’re going to throw out everything but your central character? And not even really keeping him, just keeping his name and changing the essence of his personality. I’ve got the original cast album, too, but I haven’t listened to it much. There’s one song I like a lot, “Something You Never Had Before,” but the rest of the score has always seemed rather lame and false to me.