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2002-09-21

James Abbott McNeill Whistler
B. 7.10.1834 Lowell, Massachusetts / D. 7.17.1903 London
Heart Attack

A night at the theater.

Uptown at the downtown end of the Upper West Side (at the Promenade on 76th and Broadway to be precise) My Old Lady, the new 3-character comic melodrama by Israel Horowitz is playing in one of the strangest spaces you’ll ever see.

Perched in the midst of an Escher-like complex of hallways and stairs is a cavernous cube stuffed steeply on three walls with seating (on the fourth, a projecting stage, expensively set to approximate “The living room of Mathilde’s apartment overlooking Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris, France,” offers very antique- very authentic-looking glass panes in many doors, as well as walls cleverly worked up to appear as if their heavy gilding had tarnished and cracked), that newfangled seating with handicap railings everywhere and no leg room at all.

During Act One it’s impossible not to speculate on what the Promenade Theater’s original purpose and subsequent use might have been. A revival hall? Your eyes stray to the ceiling, the upper walls—the original woodwork, surely, under a coat of white paint. The linear, Mission-flat pattern raised in wood that runs up and down and across the upper walls, the ceiling—strange how it suggests some hidden meaning. . .like a rebus of genealogical or numeric revelation. A Masonic something, perhaps? A synagogue? Such an architecture—of brotherhood. Yes it’s strange.

Of course it may have been covered all over in murals once—mermaids and jagged shores, feathered headdresses and the first buck-skinned whitey—long-vanished under the carbon shrouds of innumerable lamps and cigars. Come to examine it, this cube could be something like a quarter-corner claimed from out between the balcony and rafters of a vastly larger, more amusing space. Annie Oakley may have performed here in the midst of trained stampedes; or the famous naval battles of the day, complete with cannon-fire and storms, have been presented continuously, in The World’s Largest Tank.

Or bare-knuckled, Ripper-bloody Irishmen boxing each other into oblivion by the light of torches—which is exactly what intermission finds you realizing you wish you’d been watching instead.

Consolation Site: There never was an artistic period!

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