May 05, 2023
NEW YORK—The concept of creativity and invention can be a doubled-edged sword: It can be fresh, uplifting, and original, like the Off Broadway play directed by Michael Mailer I’ve just seen, or it can be a phony rip-off of a Shakespeare classic, a terrible modern take on Hamlet, blackness, and homosexuality that I have not seen and do not plan to. What makes me laugh is the reviewer of the Bagel Times who gave a good one to the latter, Fat Ham, as absurd in terms of objective judgment as, say, an appraisal of Mein Kampf for a Berlin daily circa 1942.
Favoring the message over the fun is in vogue nowadays, but Michael’s Darkness of Light: Confessions of a Russian Traveler eschews the norm while it takes flight. It is based on painter Alexander Kaletski’s life, who as playwright and codirector of the play also happens to be a very good friend of mine, as well as of Michael’s for more than thirty years. Alexander went on to a highly successful career in stage and film productions in Russia, while holding underground concerts of his songs and art shows. He immigrated to America in 1975 as Russki heavies were closing in.
As Alexander’s painting career was taking off around thirty years ago, Michael was coming down from Harvard and embarking on a career in film. Both have struck it rich since: Alexander’s autobiographical novel Metro was a best-seller, and his paintings now go for lotsa moola. He has a beautiful wife, Anna, who runs their gallery and had once upon a time discovered a young painter, an Austro-Greek by the name of John Taki. She invited him to come to New York and exhibit some of his latest art, but he felt unready for the challenge. I suspect the fear of failure runs in the family on his father’s side.
My old buddy Michael Mailer has written, produced, and directed more than 25 feature films, but this play was his first foray onto the stage. I don’t know how he did it, but I suppose it has something to do with talent. Like style or beauty, one either’s got it or they don’t. As of late, the ones without it seem to be everywhere: on screen, on the stage, and certainly on the written page. Something’s going on and the bad guys are winning. The moral foundation of civilization is being undermined, not by politics but by the culture. The idea that a wonderful and original Off Broadway play is ignored by the powers that be, while some politically correct garbage is praised, is proof that my fears are not simple paranoia. (Incidentally, the April 15 Spectator piece “The attack on meritocracy,” by Adrian Wooldridge, is by far the most important warning of what is taking place. Not to be missed.)
But back to the play, where my buddies and I occupied the front row and roared the cast on. The challenge for Michael the director was that theater is a language-based medium, whereas film is visual. In theater the story needs to transport the audience beyond the walls, and the director managed it with a very good cast. Darkness of Light is a tragicomic romp through the existential crises of a fictional man’s life, but with enough true-life experiences to feel factual and real.
My favorite scene among many was when the hero, who is sent to the gulag, seduces a rather obese and ugly female guard by painting her portrait. The extremely aggressive screw slowly melts and becomes his slave. Ironically, after the show we all met with the cast at a bar for food and booze, and I met the gulag guard. She could not have been more pleasant and even attractive, such are the powers of Thespis, the Greek poet who was said to be the inventor of Greek tragedy in that he was the first to appear on the Athenian stage as an actor separated from the chorus. He also introduced the prologue and set speeches, as well as the mask. I started to tell the sweet young actress who played the gulag screw all that, but then I somehow lost my concentration. Never mind.
There were other memorable moments, and one that sticks out—no pun intended—is when the hero is asked if he’s circumcised, a procedure he has never heard of, and is shown in pantomime what it entails. He screams and runs away. This takes place in Italy, where the action moves after Russia. What I’d love to see is for the play to become a musical and be turned into a film or a Broadway hit. I don’t know why, but the comic lightness of what is actually a dramatic tale fits right in as a musical. And if Alexander and Michael cannot come up with the musical goods, the great Cole can always come to the rescue. When, say, Alexander is being pushed around by the gulag guard, he can serenade her with: “It’s the wrong time and the wrong place/Though your face is charming it’s the wrong face,” or “I am dejected, I am depressed/Yet resurrected and sailing the crest/Why this elation, mixed with deflation/What explanation? I am in love.”
See what I mean? Broadway, make way, here we come.