Saturday, November 25, 2006

Make Someone Happy:
Remembering Betty Comden

(Occasioned by Betty Comden's death at 89 two days ago. Jeff Lunden's radio remembrance on NPR Saturday Weekend Edition of her is playing as I write.)

The closest I ever got to Betty Comden was in 1979, when I just missed a matinee of ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, the musical that she wrote with life-time collaborator Adolph Green and composer Cy Coleman. When star Imogene Coca took time off, Betty Comden filled in. A friend of a friend who saw her that week, commented that she looked "petrified." 

She was probably out of practice. In the Thirties, she and her pals Judy Holliday and Adolph Green wrote comedy sketches and song parodies because it was their only way to get on stage -- a very small stage at a cabaret, "The Village Vanguard." Holliday went on to become a beloved star, but Betty and Adolph kept getting turned down for performing gigs while they were chosen for writing scripts. When their buddy Lenny Bernstein asked them to write a musical play based on his ballet FANCY FREE, they wrote ON THE TOWN with parts for themselves.

From that time on, they were writing scripts and lyrics. In Hollywood, they wrote the script for that epitome of movie musicals, SINGING IN THE RAIN. On Broadway, they wrote scripts for the kinds of shows that filled theatres in the 50s, when costs were low, front row seats cost under $12, and creators were putting shows up and taking them down at a rate of one or even two per year. That is to say, these shows were flimsy and disposable, fun and light, not built to last. Does anyone remember their Fifties and Sixties shows SUBWAYS ARE FOR SLEEPING? DO-RE-MI? FADE IN, FADE OUT? BONANZA BOUND? Comden and Green wrote most often with Jule Styne, and none of their shows has been revived except PETER PAN and BELLS ARE RINGING (short-lived revival in '02). Another show with Bernstein, WONDERFUL TOWN, had more success, but only marginally, two years ago. By the late Sixties, Comden and Green's style seemed dated. Their attempt to be "with it" was a musical with an all-black cast starring Leslie Uggams, HALLELUJAH, BABY -- not a good experience, Styne said, years later. They wrote script-only for a big hit, APPLAUSE.

But Comden and Green weren't nonplussed. At least in public, they always remained the wide-eyed college graduates who were being allowed to play theatre with the professionals. I saw them on a Public TV talk show with composer-conductor Andre Previn, when they gleefuly challenged him to name any symphony by any composer, and they would be able to perform the tune of the third movement (usually the least flashy and least remembered part). And they did.

I got to know them through an LP called "A Party with Comden and Green," a Christmas present from Mom and Dad in 1977.
In their "Party," recorded live, they joke through a retrospective of their career. The mood turns a bit more somber when they introduce some new material for a revue they wrote with Cy Coleman. Evidently, that revue was focused on the world of the near-future. For it, they wrote lyrics for a dissonant waltz called, "The Lost Word":

What was that word they wrote songs about?
Wrote poems about?
What was that word that made strong men weak?
And weak men strong?
...What was that word like a lightning flash,
That could change a life at first sight?

It's a lost word, from a lost world,
A powerful word from a lost world.
It had magic. It had music.
But it's vanished away. . .

I always guessed that this song expressed the regret of three Broadway vets who were feeling that America had passed them by. They wrote the lyric in the mid-70s, seeing how our culture had turned cynical about all our institutions including marriage. Obviously, the works of Stephen Sondheim spoke to such disillusionment. (They admired Sondheim unabashedly, and, in 1985, performed in an all-star symphony orchestra performance of his FOLLIES).

Through all this time, Betty and Adolph were happily married (not to each other), and they met every morning from the early 1940s to his death in 2002. Betty remembers that they would discuss possible projects, or just gossip. Eventually, with composer Cy Coleman, they found their footing again, under direction by Sondheim's collaborator Harold Prince, to create ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, in which they re-imagined the nineteenth century operetta as a smart, glittering Art Deco farce. The oversized characters sang big-voiced songs with lush orchestrations. Even the love duet "Our Private World" was really a display of the two leads' narcissism. Later, the three collaborated again on THE WILL ROGERS FOLLIES, which made no impression on me when I saw it in 1992 (I think).

Of all the lyrics they wrote, a few remain as standards, and a few more are standards among the cognoscenti. "Just in Time" and "The Party's Over" from BELLS ARE RINGING, with "Make Someone Happy" from DO-RE-MI are in the first group, as "Lucky to Be Me" and "Lonely Town" are in the second.

But Comden and Green's "special material" numbers are what make them special, and those, alas, can be appreciated only in context. A song for a lead-foot woman cabby seducing the tourist sailor away from his outdated guide book. . . a dance for down-on-their-luck stock investors. . . a French lesson that turns into a love at first sight. . . a duet for the back-up singers of a sister trio ("The Banshee Sisters") whose lead singer has run off with all the words . . . an actress with two scripts in hand, choosing between the roles of a gin-soaked divorcee or saintly Mary Magdalene. . . a roomful of people with nothing in common trying to make "nice talk." These flights of fancy were their specialty.

These were hard-working, self-disciplined people whose work always expresses one thing: the joy they took in making it. In words that Betty Comden wrote and also sang with Adolph Green:

Fame, if you win it,
Comes and goes in a minute.
Where's the real stuff in life to cling to?
. . . Make someone happy,
And you will be happy, too.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Linda Pastan's Poetry for Giving Thanks

(for Thanksgiving, an appreciation of Linda Pastan's poetry, referring especially to her collection The Last Uncle, with a nod to Billy Collins Picnic, Lightning)

For this Thanksgiving, I met my parents, their younger friends the Curzons, and their older friend Mary for dinner at "Antica Posta" (the old Post Office, transformed to an Italian restaurant). I had pasta and truffles; they all had fish, except for an osso bucco. Sometime before the entrees arrived, the conversation turned to macabre deaths of young people, and I was reminded of Billy Collins's meditation on a line from Nabokov's novel Lolita (quoted from memory): "My photogenic mother died in a freak accident when I was three (picnic, lightning)." Collins has some fun imagining all the serio-comic ways a person can die (meteorite, safe fallen from window, stroke ).

But this brought to mind another poet whose work often touches and surprises me, Linda Pastan. I often return to her collection Carnival Evening. I took her slim volume The Last Uncle with me to rre-read before the Thanksgiving service this morning, and had it in my car as I drove to the restaurant this evening.

She, too, has a meditation on sudden death, with a Russian Jewish twist. Hers is called "The Cossacks," as she explains: "For Jews, the Cossacks are always coming. / Therefore, I think the sun spot on my arm / is melanoma." I can identify, being a hypochondriac who feels the symptoms of whatever fatal disease has recently made the news. Our conversation tonight hovered briefly around how frightened I once was of death-- of "catching a heart attack" from my grandparents, I remember.

While the title poem and many others in this collection find fresh ways to express the sudden recognition that one's life can't last, there's an intriguing idea here that's new to me.
In "The Vanity of Names," she muses on how the "house" of her body will crumble long before the house in which she lives, and she imagines how future inhabitants will appreciate the same beautiful fall of the sunlight on the same wall (something I can identify with in my gift of a home), and how her house -- stripped of all her belongings -- will enter the dreams of future generations (as my Grandmother's home is so much a part of my dreams). But to "acquiesce" in this, she says, "is to love the unwritten future / almost as well as the fading past." This, she implies, is impossible. Another poem, "After a Long Absence, I Return to a Site of Former Happiness," touches on the same subject. It seems that the years haven't changed the old home at all, and this bugs her:

And as I see how easily I'll be replaced on earth,
I think if there's a poem of affirmation here,
a poem without bitterness or a shadow
of self-pity, then someone else must write it.

We want to cling to the past, and we like to think the world is going to hell as we near our end. I feel this impulse in me already, at 47. Mary feels it even more: "Remember that Broadway musical Stop the World, I Want to Get Off? That's me." I like this strange notion of holding the past and future to be equally lovable. That's a bit of Hinduism, isn't it? "Hold pleasure and pain as equal," says Krishna in the Gita.

With this theme is a related one, how past and future are continuous, as when her napping grandsons are disturbed by the noise of her old piano downstairs because. . .
my son is playing the kind of music
it took him all these years,
and sons of his own, to want to make.
- "Practicing"

Another poem conjures the ancient Greek "Fates" brought to mind by images of women in her family who sewed together from 1900 to 2000 - and she connects the "thread" of fate or time, and sneaks in a reference to those scissors, too, with which the Fates snip a life. A sweeter poem remembers the day she realized that her mother Bess had a life before motherhood, brought to mind when her newborn granddaughter is named Bess.

Linda Pastan is good at pleasure, too, just appreciating weather, her husband, leaves, dogs, literature. I love her "Travelogue" in which she confesses that, like me, she often has a printed page between her and the places where she travels, looking up from a mystery to see mountains of Greece, for example.

She is a poet of gratitude, sharing this in common with John Updike and less well-known poet Lawrence Raab, about whom I hope to write soon.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Verse Noire

(response to "The Collector's Tale" by David Mason, from his collection Arrivals.)

I'm currently reading stories by Raymond Chandler, whose novels defined the "hard-boiled" detective sub-genre. Maybe his influence on me is at work, but I believe I've just enjoyed a hard-boiled poem noire in David Mason's book Arrivals.

Called "The Collector," its first-person narrator is a laconic antiques dealer ("I thought of all the dead things in my shop. / No object I put up was poorly made") relating how he suffered the visit of an alcohol-soaked acquaintance, unwillingly hearing his confession of manslaughter. Like Chandler's detective Marlowe, the narrator affects detachment but allows himself to be drawn into others' lives in spite of himself, saying, "I listened -- that I regret." Like Marlowe, he feels ambivalent about the law, but he adheres strictly to his own unexpressed moral code.

The mood is dark, the milieu repellant, and, at the center of the story, there's a grotesque object. Its story is nested in the story of the alcoholic nighttime visitor Foley, whose story is nested in that of the narrator. Its structure and mood make me think of Heart of Darkness, as we penetrate deeper to a horror, and remain haunted by it even as we emerge from the encounter. I suspect that Mason has constructed this elaborate setting to amplify the effect of that object -- the shrunken head of a black man, fashioned into an ashtray. Once we've seen it, we see Foley's righteous indignation at the inhumanity that it represents, and how the object haunts Foley, and the narrator, and now, the reader.

The narrator speaks in rhyme A B C C A B C, a pattern that subdues the rhymes. We suspect we're hearing a regular pattern, but cannot apprehend it as we read. This control and understatement puts his verses at one more remove from us -- contrasted with Foley's unrhymed outpouring of story, with its cursing and rambling.

As a story alone, it works. It hasn't much plot, but it's creepy as anything by Chandler, or Edgar Allen Poe.

From NWP Convention: Critical of "New Literacies?"

(thoughts from the general session of the National Writing Project convention in Nashville today. Education )

Not long ago, I read an article about education in Weekly Standard that used quote marks to drip sarcasm on phrases such as "educator" and "creating knowledge" and "constructing understanding." I suppose that the same author, mocking trendiness in education, would mock the National Writing Project (though it's remained consistent in its principles through more than thirty-five years' growth) and would also snicker at the mention of "new literacies" in an address by Katherine Yancey, the chair of National Council of Teachers of English.

But the "constructivist" theory of teaching is no goofy innovation. When I was a student at Oxford, I attended just a few lectures, about which my professors were apologetic. To them, lecture was the unwelcome innovation, borrowed from American universities -- to have an expert stand up for an hour to present knowledge. The better model, used for centuries, was the tutorial, in which the experienced scholar converses with the younger one, considering questions about what they've both read. The tutor assigns, questions, listens to answers, and critiques those answers, challenging the student to articulate his opinion more clearly, changing the student's understanding in the process. In case the "instructivists" miss the point, that time-honored method is to use questions, various readings, and the students' own words to "construct" knowledge. Research, essay-writing (essay meaning "trial"), and debate -- these are all instruments of the best education because they engage the students in acquiring information, weighing opinions, and synthesizing it all. That's reading critically, the real aim of education.

"New Literacies?"
So what's to fear in "new literacies?" Yes, it's a clumsy phrase, knowing that "literacy" never had a plural form before, being literally the acquisition of "letters." Worse, from the point of view of the scoffers, the "new literacies" include images, sounds, and mixed-media.

But the old literacy was pretty limited in scope. It's only recently that a sizable proportion of the world's population could read at all, and more recently still that a sizable proportion had access to inexpensive books; and it's only a small proportion of that population who ever did read critically.

I suppose that the Weekly Standard guy thinks that time spent in front of a screen is time better spent in front of printed paper. But what inherent quality do books have to make them superior to any other "literacy?" Readers can take time to read, mark, and consider with a book, not so easily with video. Also, the writer must construct a book with logic to make sense, left to right, page to page, building an argument or story with some kind of sequence and meaningful connection from one paragraph to the next. Yes, it's true: interactivity disrupts all that.

But what proportion of adults ever learned to read critically? It was always small. And a small proportion of books were ever so good -- Mein Kampf springs to mind as the example of a tome without reason.

The era of books may have been a brief interregnum between times when learning and communication involve images and sounds. Long before the books, there were oratory, drama, graphics, song, and open conversation, all with the potential to influence citizens' hearts and minds.

The essential thing is, as always, that the largest possible proportion of our population learn that a "critical view" simply means that the viewer is aware of a message's form and context as well as its content.

Constructing Knowledge?
Let's acknowledge that critical readers are always choosing what they value most from the text (or picture, or movie, you name it) according to their own interest, prior knowledge, and intentions -- "constructing" their own meaning of the text.

Another speaker (Sheridan Blau, 28 years the director of the South Coast Writing Project in CA) used Adam and Eve to mock the traditional "instructivist" approach. What was the snake but a pedant who saw knowledge as something that could be consumed? Rather, emphasizing this year's theme of "Writing for a Change," Blau used examples to show what every writer knows: that putting one's thoughts and experiences into words always transforms how we think and sometimes transforms how others think and act. If only Adam and Eve had been writing reflectively in the Garden, he mused, they would have responded differently... and we'd be meeting comfortably undressed.

Mock This!
With alarm, I heard some teachers yesterday tell how their school system has forbidden instruction in writing because it's detracting from instruction in reading, and students' reading scores have been dropping. Now, that's an educational innovation that's worth mockery.

The teacher who told us of this had in hand data obtained from comparisons of similar classrooms with similar teachers who differed only in their approach to teaching writing. The ones who treated writing as a way to learn (by constructing) instead of just as a way to assess what kids have learned, had students who scored higher on reading, too.

Yes, let's be critical of "new literacies" -- in exactly the way we're critical of books, of oratory, and of editorial writers.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Barber of Seville, Butchers of Baghdad: Same Planet?

(further reflections on the Atlanta Opera's THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, on news from Iraq, and an interview of Gore Vidal by Bob Edwards on Sunday. Music News and History Religion )

Prior to THE BARBER OF SEVILLE, I listened to an interview with Gore Vidal, who impressed me as an arrogant, cranky, crackpot. With great confidence he told us that the Mafia was behind the death of John Kennedy and Bobby couldn't do anything about it because the mob had info about JFK's assassination plans for Castro. To the suggestion that conspiracy theories suggest nuttiness, he said America is run by conspiracists -- "the Bush gang" stealing elections left and right, Enron cheating everyone, and media. He said America is hated or scorned the world over, and Americans are lulled by a conspiracy of teachers and media into thinking that we're a great nation and envied the world over. Economists, he said, rate our quality of life below 30th in the world, and "nobody has health care." Sour, bitter, arrogant, and foolish.

Then I saw the opera, and was wholly wrapped up in playful music, playful lyrics, bravura singing, and the playfulness of the characters.

Coming out of the opera, I had to confront some news from Iraq involving more bodies found tortured, more American troops killed, and horrors that I can't conceive at the amputee ward of Walter Reed hospital.

Does the agony in Iraq make the delights of Rossini appear trivial, irresponsible, wasteful, phoney - distraction from the terrible truths? Can they really be on the same planet?

I'm inclined to think that the hateful bombers and beheaders are the ones trapped in unreality. Rossini, Sondheim, Mozart, Shakespeare -- these represent us at our best, our most generous impulses, our playfulness and appreciation of life. They keep us free of our gross concerns and consuming anger; may the same spirit, expressed in camaraderie among soldiers, sustain the troops trapped in crossfire between humorless factions.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Rossini, Poulenc, LaChiusa: Opera's Special Charms

(response to The Barber of Seville, performed by the Atlanta Opera Company, and a radio broadcast from Houston Grand Opera of John Michael LaChiusa's Send and Poulenc's La Voix Humaine. )

Rossini's music, even during a second-act thunderstorm, stays airy, light, and dry. The characters are all endearing. "Figaro" (played by Hugh Russell) sang with bravado as he boasted how his imagination bubbles with ideas like a volcano, and how money sets it to bubbling. The Count Almaviva (Bradley Williams) is his less-bright buddy whose rank and wallet save the day a couple of times. There's a great battle of wits and wills going on between Rosina and her guardian Bartolo and Rosina and Figaro. She seems so modern, so like a bored thrill-seeking teen girl of today -- except for some extraordinary high and light notes. Even bad guy Bartolo is endearing -- having as much fun catching his ward and her male admirers in their schemes as they have circumventing him. All of them do the tongue-twisting patter that earns scads of applause.

This production also stayed light and airy. The first image is a back-lit blue scrim, and the silhouette of a musician. Then we see bicyclists, more musicians, and eventually three free-standing town homes that look flat -- before windows open and we see as many as three characters in a room behind the window -- the effect being the same as when Wile E. Coyote disappears behind a thin tree trunk. Interiors were portions of walls dropped in from above, colorfully papered.

Rossini did some post-modern reflexive bits, such as the pastiche of other opera styles during a music lesson scene, and when Bartolo mocks the girl's aria, and later, when Figaro impatiently tries to get the lovers to stop their duet to escape. Wonderful moment is Act One finale, in which the main characters are mortified, "like statues," singing one syllable per measure, and Figaro sings supple lines around them, playing with the convention of their facing the audience in place.

These must all be familiar to opera fans, but they're new to me. I'd expected something cute and stylized, not vital and warm and self-knowing.

John Michael LaChiusa's one-woman, one-act opera Send, performed on the radio by Audra McDonald, had some of those same qualities. His music utilized sampling technology to allow McDonald to sing words against thoughts -- overlapping her own voice in duets. The situation is simple: the 30-something woman has sent her phone number to the man who replied to her personals ad on line -- and she's been waiting hours for him to call. While she repeats "five minutes more," she daydreams about the possible ways this on-line relationship might develop, the way people do -- and castigates herself for being so dependent on this dream of romance.

LaChiusa and Rossini share in common their attention to keeping a steady pulse going throughout the evening, though relieved sometimes by silence, or very lightly textured accompaniment.

Poulenc's piece is something else. He draws us uncomfortably into a clutching woman's desperate world, as we listen to her curses, cajoling, self-abasement, flirtation, and delusional chatter on the phone to her ex-lover. Intense, hard to take for the length of the act. I saw a production of this with a memorable set: Instead of the woman's apartment, we saw a red sports car, crashed into a telephone pole on some country road, and she crawls out of the wreck to talk on her cell phone. But there's more: the swell of the hill and the odd object hanging down from above the phone pole resolve into the dashboard of a car and its rear-view mirror. In that mirror, we see the road behind her, and images flashing of her memories, of "his" eyes, of her reflection. . .

Throughout the Rossini, I was thinking how much more real and delightful this two-hundred -year - old piece is than most Broadway musicals I've seen.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Bees, Butterflies, Worldview and Metaphor

(response to D. H. Tracy, "Bad Ideas," in Poetry, November 2006. Poetry Religion )

D. H. Tracy's essay "Bad Ideas" in the latest Poetry is rich and fun to read, thanks in part to his own apt similes, and thanks also to his outlining a scheme for analyzing and appreciating poetry on the level of one's own premises about life. But aside from those, I take personal interest in the way some of his examples relate to a recent posting here ("Faith as Rational as Language?").

His scheme borrows from a 1947 article in which an "unserious" poet is dismissed by a "serious" critic, "serious" denoting "an awareness of premises, a belief in the validity of those premises to the exclusion of competing ones, and the will to execute them." Understanding the seriousness of a poet or a critic aids one in understanding their work, in ways that Tracy describes.

Along the way, Tracy employs some striking imagery of his own. A certain critic judges a poem "upstream of the poetry itself," meaning that he's critiquing the poet's philosophical forebears before he even gets to the text. He contrasts the seriousness of Milton to the unseriousness of Donne and Marvell, "playing with ideas like brokers playing with pork bellies." I like "bees and butterflies," his analogy for contrasting serious and unserious poets. And, at least for Dante's unserious readers, Dante's Divine Comedy is "a kind of theme park for medieval theology."

I'm interested in some bits that Tracy takes from poets' works and letters. William Butler Yeats received this note from his father about William Blake:

I know that Blake's poetry is not intelligible without a knowledge of Blake's mystical doctrines. Yet mysticism was never the substance of his poetry, only its machinery.... The substance of his poetry is himself, revolting and desiring. His mysticism was a make-believe, a sort of working hypothesis as good as another.

That's so sensible, especially when contrasted with the junior Yeats' lifelong efforts to "cobble together a mythology that was not make-believe." In my personal reflection on faith and metaphor, I opined that the metaphors of faith are useful for thinking about one's experiences and choices regardless of whether the metaphors are "make-believe." How would one even know the difference? I did add that the metaphors and mythology of Christian faith stand up to experience and strike me as more true than more worldly wisdom.

But when a friend of Gerard Manley Hopkins expressed something along the lines of what I just wrote, the poet chided, "It is long since such things [i.e. the doctrines and stories of faith] had any significance to you. But what is strange and unpleasant is that you sometimes speak as if they had in reality none for me." The whole time that I was writing my own reflection last week, I was hearing the voice of one of my guiding lights, Flannery O'Connor, saying, "If the sacraments are just a metaphor, to hell with them."

Now, aside from that, I also like these lines by James Merrill (sorry, I've never heard of him), expressing an "unserious" look at the world and poetry:

Not for nothing had the Impressionists
Put subject-matter in its place, a mere
Pretext for iridescent atmosphere.

I've written something along those lines about my favorite detective novelists, how the story is just an avenue, and the interest in the sights passed along the way.

Finally, Tracy quotes from a long poem "Essay on Psychiatrists" by Robert Pinsky, and these make me want to read the rest. In the lines cited by Tracy, a professor addresses his young Lit. students about the very thing I loved in the eighteenth century poets, how

...Sometime in the middle
Of the Eighteenth Century, along with the rise

Of capitalism and scientific method, the logical
Foundations of Western thought decayed and fell apart.
When they fell apart, poets were left

With emotions and experiences, and with no way
To examine them. At this time, poets and men
Of genius began to go mad....

...and the ideas which were vital
To them are mere amusement to you.

from Robert Pinsky's Essay on Psychiatrists
full text

Tracy admits that "Whoever holds ideas to be more than mere amusement will at the very least risk being unappealing," but he admires their courage.

Poetry | Religion

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Who's Afraid of David Mamet?

(Response to A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet, performed by Theatre in the Square, Marietta GA. Drama )

I've never seen a play by David Mamet before tonight, though I've read about him for thirty years. His scripts are "disturbing," "intense," "fierce," and "savage," I've heard. I was a bit intimidated, really. So his 1980 play A Life in the Theatre may be the perfect appetizer, getting me ready to see Glengarry Glen Ross in April.

The promotional material gave away the whole plot and design of the show: "Two actors, one on his way up, one on his way down." So they'll meet in the dressing room, rehearse some lines, and we'll see one lose his confidence and memory. They'll become friends.

One expects costume changes and some hilarious snippets of bad plays -- and Mamet delivers with scenes from plays so bad, it's hard to believe that he had real models in mind. Was there ever such a stupid detective melodrama (even without the unzipped fly), or a World War I scene so fruity, or a play on a life raft? I especially enjoyed a backstage moment when both actors realize that they don't know what line follows their next entrance in a Civil War melodrama.

Later, the young actor rehearsing Shakespeare alone on stage carries on an extensive scene in which we hear but do not see the older actor, who has been watching him surreptitiously. There's a gag here, and it's repeated. It only grows funnier as it's repeated more than we expect.

Critics often say that Mamet's dialogue is distinctive. I noticed mostly his fearless recourse to repetition -- "fearless," because he lays an awful lot of trust in his actors to do something with lines that appear to be brainless -- as for instance the older actor's scene that begins, "Oh God. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God. (pause) Is that a new sweater?" Of course, when he gives the actors so many ways to show off, there's that element of virtuosity that we expect from chamber music.

What makes this so much better than what one might expect is Mamet's pulling of sentimental punches -- taking us right to the sentimental moment and deflecting from it with humor or else with an example of that virtuosity, when the actors achieve something through silence, repetition, indirection, or a well-timed punch line that puts the edge back in just when we thought it was going to get soppy. For example, a scene that teeters on the edge of cheesiness instead leaves us marveling at how "thank you," repeated numerous times, expresses everything from incidental politeness to love.