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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Saturday Night at the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center: Brooklyn Watercolor Society Show, Brooklyn Playwrights' Collective Play Festival


We spent the afternoon watching our beloved Gators convincingly beat the Crimson Tide for the SEC championship. Our six years at the University of Florida as a law student and research faculty member (our academic title was Visiting Assistant in Law, though we were actually a staff attorney in social policy at the College of Law's wonderful Center for Governmental Responsibility), back in the halcyon days of coach Steve Spurrier.

We'd lost interest in football after that night in Steve Kahn's Futurama house when we were 12 and watched the bottom half of our front two teeth fly out of our mouth after we were tackled during a stupid game of helmet-less basement football on cement. We'd had surgery in fourth grade to get those teeth to come out, and we suffered a lot after that night.

Except for the little white football Y.A. Tittle autographed for us at a Menswear Show at the New Yorker Hotel one year, we studiously avoided football fandom until we were forty and a first-year law student in Gainesville.

But even when we were trying hard to read cases on Saturday afternoons during that first boot-camp-ish semester the fall of 1991, we could follow games from our apartment in the Student Ghetto by hearing the tumultuous cheers from The Swamp, as we lived only blocks away from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, and soon we turned on the TV, Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Co. being no match for the Gators v. anybody.

We discovered football wasn't entirely worthless; it was part of being a member of a community.

So we had about two minutes from the time the game ended and we watched Tim Tebow thank his team and his Savior, Jesus Christ ("Goeth Gators" is in the Gospels, right?), to run downstairs, outside and to the bus stop at the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and Lorimer Street to catch the B24 bus at 7:30 p.m. on its half-hourly way to the end of the line at the Williamsburg Bridge Plaza bus terminal.

We were on our way to the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center, the Beaux-Arts bank turned arts center at the corner of Broadway and Bedford to catch the end of the opening reception of the Brooklyn Watercolor Society's "A World of Watercolor," an exhibition with lovely paintings by one dozen of its members and to check out the Brooklyn Playwrights Collective's fourth annual festival of new plays. After doing programs of one-acts inspired by two other classic playwrights,"After Artaud" and "Beyond Brecht" the last two years, it was the alphabetical turn of "Confronting Chekhov" this season.

The Williamsburg Art & Historical Center is a theatrical work of art in itself. Built as a bank in 1868 and designated a landmark in 1966, back when the amazing Japanese artist Yuko Nii was a graduate student at Pratt.

Nii bought the old Kings County Savings Bank building thirty years later in 1996, when it was already seriously deteriorated. She and WAH's executive director Terrance Lindall have saved this Brooklyn treasure and remade it for the arts and the community.


The Brooklyn Watercolor Society exhibit was on the second floor, with about 100 people, a mostly older crowd, at the reception. Soft jazzy music played and we strolled around the gallery, admiring the work of many of the dozen artists represented.

Since we tend to like New York scenes, we were particularly taken with Janice Pullicino's "Brooklyn Summer Rooftops" (priced at $2200); Arlene Cornell's pictures of two waterfronts we love, Broad Channel and Oyster Bay; John Dillon's "Late Afternoon, Brooklyn," a serene car-less and people-less view from the pillars of Grand Army Plaza across Flatbush Avenue to the main library; and Michael Connolly's "Morning, Clinton Street" and "Mermaid."

Other standouts for us were Miriam Paul's "Breezy Point, Summer" Loretta Poole's "Neighborhood Watch" featuring three female figures in headscarfs or babushkas craning their necks from a park bench; Ellen Hoyt's Manhattan and Brooklyn rooftop scenes; and Olive Reich's autumnal "Shore Road Park."

We then went upstairs to the third-floor space, where the audience for the Brooklyn Playwrights Collective festival "Confronting Chekhov" was presenting Schedule A - "If Chekhov Were in America..." - of its series of one-act plays. (Schedule B will be presented at the WAH Center on Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., and the plays will also be at the Brecht Forum on Dec. 11-14 and at Park Slope's Under Minerva on Dec. 20-21.)

The Brooklyn Playwrights Collective is a collaborate project of local playwrights who work together through workshops, proposals, and readings to help each other in the playwrighting process from writing, to editing and production.

The entire WAH Center was really chilly, so we kept on our parka and wool hat throughout the performance. (Of course, we may have been born and bred in Brooklyn, but 26 winters in Florida left our blood thin. Any day it doesn't reach 70 degrees is cold to us.)

Set up more like a gallery, the third floor space was nevertheless imaginatively transformed into a performing space, even if the sightlines from the chairs was less than ideal for watching theater. (As soon as the action started, our seatmate got up and went to stand against the wall so her view of the play wasn't blocked.)

A pianist played for the fifteen to twenty minutes it took for last-minute things to be set up and for the overflow audience to sit on the chairs hastily brought up for them. (We noticed about ten people standing by choice.) Finally, the pianist stopped playing - he was quite good - and introduced the evening.

The first play, a two-hander titled The Bear 2.0 by Philip Kaplan, was a clever updating of Chekhov's triumphantly bizarre comic play (we first saw a production at Midwood High School over 40 years ago), set in a coffee bar where Lena (Rachel Fine), a wacky technophobic widow gets assistance from a needy geek (a comically twitchy Sean Conroy). Under Julia Goldstein's fast-paced direction, the farce moves to its satisfying and inevitable conclusion.

Les Hunter's Biggest Break, directed by Dan Winerman, contained some classic Chekhovian themes of familial disputes over property, generational conflict and alternating manic energy and enervated lassitude (here facilitated by dope-smoking). Set in a Tucson home where the father of Ben (Johnny Pruitt) and husband of Beth (Kerry Fitzgibbons) is being mourned in a perfunctory manner, the play benefits from strongly etched supporting performances by David Storck and Nic Grelli.

(Portrait of Anton Chekhov at 23 by his brother Nicholas)

The third play was another two-hander about a Brooklyn couple dividing the contents of their home following the end of a 26-year marriage. Directed by Malinda Sorci, Philodendron by Allan Lefcowitz, whose work we've admired in the past, manages to evoke more of the spirit of the Russian master in anguished yet comic dialogue. Betsy Sanders is believable as the conflicted bipolar wife and David Lloyd Walters made the frustrated husband another poignant figure. True to Chekhov, in this one-act, good and loving people do not always live happily ever after and neither do their plants.

At intermission we had to leave, done in by exhaustion -- we had taught our Borough of Manhattan Community College class in creative writing on the Brooklyn College campus late on Friday night and had been at BC teaching Joyce's "The Dead" to our short story literature class all Saturday morning -- and alarmed by the first snow of the season, but we're sure the rest of the evening's plays and the others in the festival are worth seeing as well.

Did we mention that we hate winter and we hate snow? We will be in our Phoenix home in ten days, but as we tried not to slip on the weirdly paved old sidewalk in front of the old Williamsburgh Savings Bank building, we knew why Chekhov opened his aptly-named story "Misery" like this:
The twilight of evening. Big flakes of wet snow are whirling lazily about the street lamps, which have just been lighted, and lying in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses' backs, shoulders, caps.


Unfortunately, there wasn't a bus in sight at the Williamsburg Bridge bus terminal that would take us where we needed to go -- now we realize we shouldn't have been so sanguine about local bus service when we participated in a breakout session on transportation in Williamsburg at Thursday evening's meeting of Neighbors Allied for Good Growth at the Holy Ghost Ukrainian Church -- and we had to trudge blocks across a bleak Broadway under the el to Union Street and the Broadway station of the G train to get us to the warmth of home.

We were sometimes in this area late at night in the 1970s, when the streets were more dangerous and muggings were frequent, but we tried to think of pleasanter times that decade, like seeing James Earl Jones in The Cherry Orchard at the Public Theatre, waiting for Margaret Tyzack at the BAM stage door after a performance of Gorky's Summerfolk, and being enthralled by an all-star Circle in the Square production of Uncle Vanya with George C. Scott, Julie Christie, Nicol Williamson, Cathleen Nesbitt, Barnard Hughes, Conrad Bain, Elizabeth Wilson and Lillian Gish.

AccuWeather was right: snow was general all over Brooklyn, falling over every part of the dark borough. As it fell on us, we made sure our soul did not swoon or anything.

1 comment:

Peter said...

A pianist played for the fifteen to twenty minutes it took for last-minute things to be set up and for the overflow audience to sit on the chairs hastily brought up for them. (We noticed about ten people standing by choice.) Finally, the pianist stopped playing - he was quite good - and introduced the evening.

(Thank you for the kind words... The pianist is Peter Dizozza, The WAH Center Theater Director performing Scriabin themes from his "Russian Flute Sonata.")