There is a minority branch of Homo scriptus that likes to perform what they write. Stand-up comedians who write their own material represent most of this subspecies but a few novelists, essayists and journalists also enjoy performing their own work. (I do not refer to the obligatory publicity circuit to promote a new book.)
Charles Dickens famously loved to go on the road and give readings from his novels, dramatizing his various characters with gusto, declamation, and even tears. (He also earned a small fortune in the process; on one American tour he raked in today’s equivalent of $1.5 million.) Norman Mailer was another author who relished public appearances, some peaceful, some pugilistic.
If you pushed me against the literary wall and forced me to name my favorite New Yorker magazine writer, I would have to say Adam Gopnik. He has been writing for The New Yorker since 1986. As for his years in New York prior to 1986, he says he was writing for The New Yorker then too; the magazine just didn’t know it. He is a three-time winner of the National Magazine Award for Essays and for Criticism. In 1995 he moved his young family to Paris, where for the next five years he wrote the magazine’s “Paris Journal.” In 2013 the French Republic honored him with the medal of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. Amidst all the magazine writing, he’s also found time to write eight books.
His work probes a wide array of subjects deeply and wisely. His writing is incisive, balanced, often meditative, and never histrionic. He writes a graceful sentence, in the way that some people have elegant handwriting. His masterly use of language is suited for the page, not the stage, or at least that’s what I would have said before last week. Let me back up a minute.
Town Hall is an important part of Seattle’s intellectual and cultural life, offering upwards of 500 lectures and performances each year on the arts, history, science, technology and current events. I am a longtime member and if you live in the Seattle area and these topics interest you, you should belong too. (Memberships begin at $30. End of public service announcement.)
A few months back I got a notice from Town Hall that Gopnik would be coming to discuss his newest book, At the Strangers’ Gate. I booked tickets, marked my calendar, and promptly forgot about it. What I wasn’t told at the time and, I suspect, Town Hall didn’t know either, is that instead of the standard read-pages-then-Q&A format of most book tours, Gopnik would be giving a solo performance that would be only loosely connected to the new book. Furthermore the Seattle appearance would serve as a dress rehearsal – his only one – prior to opening in January at the Public Theatre in New York, the country’s most important nonprofit theatre. All a surprise to me.
Last week I had the pleasure of seeing Gopnik’s show at Town Hall. Titled The Gates: Romance of 1980s New York City, it resides somewhere between personal memoir and stand-up comedy. With his signature charm and wit, Gopnik shares intimate and often humorous stories from his decades as a husband, father, and writer in New York City.
I later discovered that in 2011 Gopnik had performed a much shorter piece, Rare Romance, Well-Done Marriage, for the Moth Radio Hour. That performance, which can be seen here, focused on food and contains anecdotes that Gopnik expands on in The Gates. That appearance must have been judged a success, since the director of this new show is The Moth’s Artistic Director Catherine Burns and wife Martha Parker is a producer.
Gopnik opens The Gates with him and Martha marrying in Quebec and setting up house in what he calls New York’s tiniest apartment. He tapes out its nine-by-twelve feet on stage and, as he cautions us to watch out for the cockroaches and mice, conducts a tour. From the combination living room/bedroom he shuffles one step to the left and welcomes us to the dining room. A series of anecdotes takes us through the family’s residences, jobs and challenges in the big city over the next decades. Near the end of the show he shares a trenchant observation: when we recall places from our past (such as New York apartments), what we are really doing is recognizing the passage of time that those places represent. Time passes, we can’t get it back, our memories of place are the residue. The show has a lovely arc: it opens with Adam and Martha as the young couple, buoyed by love, setting up home in a decrepit nest. It ends with his son Luke coming back from college with his girlfriend and their renting a scimpy apartment in New York.
Gopnik has not only come on stage as a solo performer, over the last five years he has been branching out into musical theatre. He wrote the book and lyrics for a new musical, The Most Beautiful Room in New York, which premiered last May at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut. David Shire was the composer and Gordon Edelstein, former Artistic Director of ACT Theatre in Seattle, directed. Future projects include a new musical with composer Scott Frankel.
The Gates opens Jan. 5 in New York. It runs 90 minutes with one intermission. If you find yourself in New York in January and can’t get tickets to Hamilton, you wouldn’t be slumming it to see Adam Gopnik’s show. There are only five performance so I wouldn’t dawdle getting tickets.
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