Windjammer

By Vicki Weisfeld

When Bruce Pritchard unlocked the door to his weekend Cape May, New Jersey, cottage one Friday early in June, the wind crowded in behind him like a presence, gusts of rain snapping at his heels. He flipped the light switch and shed the old-fashioned boots, oilskins, and sou’wester he affected, a fully wired city boy summoning the crusty New England sea captains of his imagination.

He lit the fireplace to exorcise the weekday shadows and dispel the ocean’s powerful breath, swirling about him like a salt-tinged mist. In the kitchen, he unpacked provisions — steaks for friends, a purple cluster of mussels for himself, a bottle of prosecco, ditto. This he opened at once.

He toured the four downstairs rooms, glass of wine in hand, shedding the week’s frustrations like a sodden overcoat. The cottage’s renovations were finally, finally finished, and the next evening his six best friends — and investment clients — were driving down from New York to help him celebrate.

A line of sand-clouded puddles tracked from door to fireplace disturbed the perfection of the moment, and Bruce chided himself as he fetched a towel to dry them.

After dinner, he sat in front of the fire and paged through a musty volume of nautical prints — oversized engravings of merchant ships, three-masted clippers, an artist’s impression of The Flying Dutchman. Tonight he’d skip the blood-soaked ghosts of the Stephen King he’d been reading, the book slumbering like a serpent on his beside table.

He’d rescued the book of engravings from the attic, a farrago of yellowing volumes, framed pictures, half-empty chests, and broken whatnots he’d barely glanced at as yet. The elderly sisters who sold him the cottage said they’d never been up there and exchanged a secretive look. “Noises,” one said, and the other said, “Best not to be too curious.” “Or disturb things,” the first one nodded, but her sister cut off further comment with one glance. Of course they didn’t want to call attention to how they’d left everything “undisturbed,” and unrepaired, and unpainted, un, un, un, which was why the place was crumbling around their ears and why he’d been able to buy it at such a good price.

Well into the night, the storm provided a soundtrack for dreams of howling seas and wind-battered sailors, decks slippery as glass, whiplashing ropes and renting sails, so that he awoke feeling he’d tussled with the elements for hours. From the bedroom window, he watched the morning sun chase the ocean waves, a quarter-mile away. His prize view.

Mary Benaker’s station wagon pulled into the smoothed patch of sand next to his BMW. He threw on a robe and met her at the front door. Mary was the real estate agent who kept an eye on the place for him, arranged his cleaning service, and oversaw any weekday workmen. She’d been a godsend during the renovation. All 18 harrowing months of it. Now she greeted him, holding a flat of annuals.

“Thought you might want these,” she said, too cheerful for the hour. “I just drove past the farmer’s market. They’ve got strawberries.”

Bruce regarded the banal mix of orange marigolds, red salvia, and purple and white petunias. Nothing he would plant. Certainly not in that color combination. “No thanks. I’m headed to the garden center today myself. Very generous of you, but, no.”

She looked a bit sadly at the unwanted annuals, but said nothing.

As an afterthought, he said, “One thing, though. Was the maid service here last week?”

“Next week. First and third Wednesdays. Everything OK?”

He looked past her, head cocked. “Yes, but …” He paused to focus a thought. “Everything looks moved, slightly, like someone dusted. And, it just feels like … someone’s been here.” He’d had a parade of unsettling feelings when at the house in the last few weeks, but he wasn’t going to tell Mary about the worst of them — that someone was watching him. That he chalked up to urban paranoia and, possibly, too much Cabernet.

Now she hesitated. “Anything missing?”

“Nothing like that. Probably my imagination.” The uncertain way he said this made it clear he didn’t believe it was his imagination at all, and he turned to go back inside the house. “Thanks, anyway.” He indicated the plants.

“Suit yourself,” she said to the closing door.

Bruce leaned his back against the door, annoyed. Throughout the endless renovation, she always managed to slip in a dig. “If that’s what you like,” “Of course, that’s up to you,” “Suit yourself.” Her distaste for his choices, his polished style couldn’t be clearer.

“So what!” he scolded himself, then gasped. He took a step forward, then another, transfixed by what he saw over the fireplace. In place of his prized large-format Robert Mapplethorpe photograph — ambiguous portions of two male torsos, one black, one white, so rich in tone it seemed a color print, but wasn’t — sailed a four-masted windjammer, sheets unfurled and running with the wind, straight at him.

He wheeled and opened the door. “Mary!” he shouted, but the station wagon turned onto the road and disappeared behind a stand of beach plums.

The frame of the Mapplethorpe peeked above the back of a low sofa. He pulled it from its hiding place and marched to the fireplace to switch the two. And stepped in a puddle of seawater containing a miniature beach of sand and trailing a seaweed thread.

Maybe a shower would clear his head. But in the bathroom, he found scrimshaw ornaments cluttering the glass shelf. Where the hell did those come from? Figuring they were cheap plastic souvenirs, someone’s idea of a joke, he picked up a piece to toss it into the trash, and noticed the weight, the fine detail, a map he recognized as Nantucket Island, and the date: 1846. He set it back on the glass and contemplated it.

* * *

A piece of toast in one hand and his smartphone in the other, he called Mary. “Who lived here before me, do you know? Before the sisters.”

“Let me ask Chuck. If he doesn’t know, he can find out.” Chuck Benaker was her husband, another realtor and a past president of the county historic society. These combined interests could generate a dizzying amount of genealogical detail about any parcel of local property. Bruce found Chuck tiresome, but Mary was right. He’d know.

Bruce was planting herbs next to the kitchen door when Mary called back.

“Chuck says your house was built by a retired sea captain. This would have been about 1850. The house was in his family for 75 years or so until the Darby family bought it. The parents died soon after World War II, and they left it to their daughters — the sisters who sold it to you. Not many owners.”

“What does he know about this sea captain?”

“He said the historic society has some papers and such. They open for the season in a couple of weeks, but wait.” Mary put her hand over the receiver and spoke to someone. “Chuck says he can meet you there about three.”

* * *

The historic society headquarters and museum occupied a simple clapboard house on Washington Street. Chuck Benaker looked up from a pile of mail. “So, your house? Quite a history.” He handed Bruce a folder. “Captain Newsome was a true legend. You have there the original deed to the property and records of some purchases. Stuff found after he was murdered, I suppose. Plus the registries kept by his nephew, who lived with him and let out the upstairs rooms to lodgers. The Darbys —”

“Murdered?”

“Newsome? Oh, yeah. Made enemies like Dunkin’ makes Donuts. If he hadn’t died, he would have been charged with a murder or two himself. Beat the rap by bleeding to death. The clippings are here somewhere,” Chuck walked to a file cabinet and rattled a drawer open. “We’ve been closed since fall, and the girls left everything a mess.” He slammed the drawer. “But I remember the story.”

Bruce leafed through the folder, mesmerized. So much for his house as a peaceful place, a refuge. He held up a green feather.

“Ah. Newsome’s parrot, ‘Cap’n,’” Chuck said. “According to their diaries, the Cape May ladies were more terrified of Cap’n than of Newsome himself. Stunning vocabulary.

“Newsome was captain of a merchant ship in the mid-1800s, sailed out of Massachusetts,” Chuck drawled, and Bruce could see the rest of the afternoon unwinding drearily in front of him, despite Chuck’s rendition of the despicable Newsome. Chuck pulled open the shallow drawer of a map cabinet and located a floor plan of the house. “Carpenter’s records.” He pointed to a second floor room. “Happened right there. When I unearth the newspaper stories, you can read the police description. Strong stomach?” He looked at Bruce over the top of his half-glasses.

“That’s my bedroom,” Bruce said, staring at Chuck’s tapping finger.

“Really.” Chuck paused, as if he found that fact somehow significant, and the word hung ambiguously in the air. “Newsome and his killer, Henry Carver — now that was a prophetic name — had a royal feud about your property. Came to a head one night, both of them drunk. Carver tried to escape across the Pine Barrens, but a timber rattler got him, so the police said.”

Bruce caught the skepticism. “You don’t believe it?”

Benaker shrugged. “The other lodgers didn’t believe it. The night in question they were all jammed in the doorway of the murder room, but none of them lifted a hand while Carver did the bloody deed. Newsome’s last words were, ‘I’ll come back and get you,’ and he shook his fist at the lot of them. When Carver turned up dead, they hightailed it.”

“What time is it?” Bruce startled, as if wakened from a bad dream, and checked his watch. 5:30.

“Oh. Sorry to keep you.” Chuck looked disappointed. “I get all wound up in these stories. Cape May County has a colorful history, that’s for sure.”

Bruce stood up, a little wobbly from information overload. “No, it was . . . helpful. But I have friends coming at seven.”

“You go on. When I dig up those clippings, we’ll talk again.” He rubbed his hands together, a gesture that made Bruce wince.

Back at the cottage, The Windjammer was back above the fireplace. He found the torn Mapplethorpe outside in the trash barrel, frame and glass shattered.

* * *

Bruce’s guests said the cottage was fantastic and thought the painting an inspired bit of camp. But their admiration gave him no pleasure, and he was uncharacteristically quiet all evening. He couldn’t talk to his New York friends about ghosts, then expect them to invest their life savings with him.

He gave two of the men the “murder room,” as Benaker termed it. As he stood in the doorway to point out the switches and extra bedding, he began to shake, and he hurried back downstairs. He slept on the sofa and hoped a sunny Sunday morning at the beach would expunge Newsome’s gory phantom.

Too soon he was awakened by a commotion in the kitchen. Up already before seven, his visitors prowled for coffee. He found them clustered around the kitchen table, staring at a tall bell-shaped object covered with a fitted cloth.

“Looks like my mother’s mixer,” said one, “only bigger.”

“Your mother dressed her appliances, too? I thought that was my Mom’s Midwestern chic.”

Bruce knew what the thing was. But he lifted the cover, anyway.

“Cap’n’s back,” squawked the parrot, followed by an outpouring of dark obscenities.

* * *

Late that afternoon the phone rang in the Benaker real estate office, and Chuck picked up. “Hey, Bruce,” Chuck said. He continued to listen for several minutes. “Sorry to hear that. . . . No, I do not believe in . . .” He listened some more. “Well, OK, if you’re sure.” Finally, he hung up.

He looked across the office and smiled at his wife. “Your dream house? As good as yours.”

The Winter’s Tale

The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
Jon Barker, Erin Partin, and John Keabler; photo: Jerry Dalia

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey offers a powerful new production of The Winter’s Tale, a play that mixes darkness and light, the tragic and the playful. Directed by STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte, it premiered December 8 and runs through December 30.

A cast of 20 is called upon to present Shakespeare’s story of how jealousy can overcome loyalty, friendship, judgment, how destructive it is to stick stubbornly to a belief despite all evidence to the contrary, and how, in the long run, the only redemption may be through love. Director Monte says this complex play is “part allegory, part searing drama, part pastoral comedy and part uplifting and moving romance.”

Leontes, King of Sicilia (played by Jon Barker), and his pregnant wife, Hermione (Erin Partin), are entertaining Leontes’s longtime friend from Bohemia, Polixines (John Keabler), when Leontes gets it in his head like a worm in an apple that Hermione and Polixines are more to each other than they ought to be. Learning the king means to do him harm, Polixines and Leontes’s courtier Camillo (Patrick Toon) flee Sicily, which only confirms Leontes of the couple’s guilt.

Leontes imprisons his distraught wife, who gives birth to a daughter that the wise woman Paulina (Marion Adler) begs him to see and claim, but he will not. He insists that his general Antigonus (Raphael Nash Thompson) take the baby away and leave it in some desolate place that it survive or die as the fates decree. Reluctantly, Antigonus complies.

Leontes puts his wife on trial, a proceeding interrupted by a message from the oracle of Apollo, who declares Hermione’s innocence. The message also says his son will die and Leontes will have no heir until he is reunited with his lost daughter. The death of the boy convinces him of the oracle’s truth, but the death of her son is too much for Hermione, and she too is struck dead.

Antigonus leaves the babe in a Bohemian wood and, in theater’s most famous stage direction, “exits, chased by a bear.” The infant is discovered by kindly shepherds.

Sixteen years pass, the character Time tells us, and the beautiful girl-child Perdita (Courtney McGowan) has fallen in love with Florizel (Ryan Woods), son of Polixines, though she does not know he’s a prince. The play moves into broad comedy with the country folk, but eventually the plan is made to go to Sicily, where sadness still reigns.There, everyone reunites and theater magic happens, and what was dark is made light again.

The entire cast is strong, with special mention needed for Jon Barker, who can convey every drop of meaning in Shakespeare’s lines through his delivery and unerring body language. Erin Partin and Marion Adler (who received applause for one particularly fiery speech) were also noteworthy. Seamus Mulcahy (Charley’s Aunt in the theater’s most recent production) shows his genius for physical comedy in the secondary role of shepherd. Raphael Nash Thompson and Patrick Toon provided restrained dignity in contrast to Barker’s erraticism.

A simple set is needed to accommodate two countries and numerous scenes, and Brittany Vasta has produced gorgeous, chilly white backgrounds that radiate winter and allow the beautiful costumes of Nikki Delhomme to provide the color. Other production credits to Tony Galaska (lighting), Danielle Liccardo (dance consultant), and Denise Cardarelli (production stage manager).

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable rom NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Stuff I Learned Lately and How I Learned It

Woodrow Wilson's Princeton Home

Woodrow Wilson’s house in Princeton cost about $35,000 to build and is now—rough-guessing here—worth about 100 times that — I learned this at a library benefit dinner at the actual house, featuring a talk by U-Mich professor Patricia O’Toole, who has a new Wilson biography: The Moralist. (Wilson promoted  the neo-Tudor architectural style, and you see it all over town)

Just because an online course is about a subject I’m deeply interested in doesn’t mean the course itself will be interesting — learned during sessions 1 & 2 of a 3-part online course about genetics in genealogy

How to tell llamas and alpacas apart – at Jersey Shore Alpacas (e.g., llamas are bigger and have perkier ears)

There was a founding father before the Founding Fathers and, though the British called him “the greatest incendiary in all America,” he’s practically forgotten – a lecture at the fantastic David Library of the American Revolution by Christian di Spigna, author of Founding Martyr: The Life and Death of Dr.Joseph Warren

Not all NYC crime writers sport sleeve tattoos – disabused of this impression at the December Noir at the Bar readathon

It took about 1300 years for medical science to reacquire the knowledge lost when the Alexandria library complex was destroyed – adult ed course on Egypt

Ron Chernow (and thus the musical Hamilton) probably got a couple of the more risqué situations in his book wrong – also at the David Library, in a talk by Tilar Mazzeo, author of the new book, Eliza Hamilton

 I may be exhibiting early manifestations of that old person’s “no filter” problem – you don’t want to know

The black stockings and tights I’ve been wearing since Thanksgiving are navy – daylight.

A Christmas Carol

Greg Wood as Ebenezer Scrooge; photo: T. Charles Erickson

This is the third season for McCarter Theatre Center’s most recent and most joyous version of A Christmas Carol, its delightful return to Christmas in the Age of Dickens. Opening night was December 7, and this sparkler of a show, based on playwright David Thompson’s adaptation and directed by Adam Immerwahr, runs through December 29.

Immerwahr’s intent when he took on this holiday staple was to explore how Scrooge’s redemption “isn’t just the redemption of one man . . . when a person changes, it can transform an entire community.” His version is filled with songs from what Immerwahr calls “the treasure trove of terrific Christmas music of Dickens’s era.” Even some carols not used explicitly have “become part of the underscoring of the play,” whose music was composed by the late Obie-award winning composer Michael Friedman.

The show exemplifies McCarter’s goal of celebrating creativity, community, and diversity in the presence onstage—and before the curtain, in the lobby and theater aisles—of a cheerful community ensemble of 26 adults and a dozen children. The entire audience is involved in singing the opening carol, and probably no one in the audience avoided beaming and foot-tapping during the Fezziwigs’ Christmas party, with its exuberant, full-cast dance.

Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Greg Wood) has never said “Bah! Humbug!” with more feeling, Bob Cratchit (Jon Norman Schneider) has never been more patiently put-upon, and the rest of the cast, mostly playing multiple parts, is as lively as ever, bringing Dickens’s memorable characters wonderfully to life.

The familiar tale of a miser’s comeuppance is all there. The Ghost of Christmas Past reminds him how he gave up his youthful opportunities for happiness in order to pursue wealth; the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him how others, especially the Cratchits, live; and the Ghost of Christmas Future presents a frightening scenario that causes him to vow to change. Old Marley’s ghost (Frank X) is particularly effective and delivers my favorite line, the sententious “I wear the chain I forged in life.I made it link by link and yard by yard.” The early dark scenes change to light as Scrooge wakes Christmas morning a reformed man.

Underscoring the production’s goal of community engagement is the scheduling of a sensory-sensitive, relaxed matinee performance on December 28, to enable a wider range of people to enjoy a live performance. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

Santa’s Bookshelf

Santa Claus, reading

Creative Commons License

Still looking for that perfect book for under the Christmas tree? Here are a few ideas for your weekend shopping that might suit some of the hard-to-buy for people on your list:

Film Noir Junkies – A.J. Finn filled his blockbuster psychological thriller, The Woman in the Window, with references to classic noir, and the main character watches quite a few too. And drinks Merlot by the case (trigger warning, Sideways fans).

Intrepid Travelers – if you can’t give a trip to Paris, you can give Mark Helprin’s Paris in the Present Tense. If they’re also classical music devotees, bonus points to you for finding this story about an aging cellist in the City of Light who really makes crime pay.

Jive-Talking Rap Music LoversRighteous or any of the other I.Q. books by Joe Ide. His characters’ language unspools across the page in pure urban poetry, as they solve crimes and right wrongs.

Unrepentant Bookworms – a book they can burrow into for days and maybe never sort out all the plot shenanigans, Lost Empress is about football, Rikers’ Island, a missing Salvador Dali painting, a man and his mom, transcribing 911 calls, Paterson, New Jersey, and so much, much more.

Armchair Psychologists – OK, does he have dementia or doesn’t he? Grace may not live long enough to find out on a Texas road trip with the elderly man she believes murdered her sister. Paper Ghosts is nice work from Julia Heaberlin.

Inveterate Classicists – David Hewson’s Juliet & Romeo is another in his fine adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Always inventive, always interesting. His Macbeth and Hamlet were winners too.

Road WarriorsShe Rides Shotgun is Jordan Harper’s award-winning debut thriller about a man and his young daughter on the run. They won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough.

Fairy Tale Fans – True, they may be startled at the liberties Karen Dionne took with Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, but in The Marsh King’s Daughter, she’s created a compelling story of a girl raised off the grid and what it takes for her to build a conventional life. Can she keep it?

Anyone Who Just Likes a Damn Good Book – You should get a twofer for Philip Kerr’s book Prussian Blue, which does a deep dive into both the dark days of the Third Reich and early 1950s France. Detective Bernie Gunther’s skill at solving murders doesn’t always make him friends.

A Sea of Blistered Tongues

Richard III, Laurence Olivier

Laurence Olivier as Richard III

Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt made an absorbing presentation last week, here in Princeton, based on his new book, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics. What Shakespeare has to say about pretty much any domain of human behavior is worth thinking about, and Greenblatt’s current preoccupation was clearly shared by his receptive audience.

He edged into the topic by describing how Shakespeare has been used in many countries and settings as a screen on which people may project their views about their own leaders—views that very often would cost them their freedom or more, if stated directly. Shakespeare’s notable tyrants—Macbeth, Coriolanus, Lear, and, especially, Richard III—become stand-ins for narcissistic demagogues across time and geography.

He highlighted the would-be king (and real-life character) Jack Cade, who appears in 2 Henry VI, as a populist leader deploying eerily familiar tactics. In Shakespeare’s dialog, Cade makes blatantly absurd promises to the rabble he incites, to wit:

“There shall be in England seven half-penny loaves sold for a penny;

The three-hooped pot shall have ten hoops;

And I will make it a felony to drink small [weak] beer. . . .

There shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score;

And I will apparel them all in one livery,

That they may agree like brothers and worship me their lord.”

This peroration is followed by what Greenblatt supposed (correctly in my case) was the only line most people can quote from that particular play, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Greenblatt says that, while the cheering rabble could not have truly believed these extravagant promises, their support for Cade was unwavering. Not until scheming Macbeth is exposed as a regicide and murderer, does Malcolm regret his former loyalty, saying, “This tyrant, whose sole name blisters our tongues, was once thought honest.”

Shakespeare’s tyrants arise in eras when, as the book blurb summarizes, “Cherished institutions seem fragile, political classes are in disarray, economic misery fuels populist anger, people knowingly accept being lied to, partisan rancor dominates, spectacular indecency rules.” Such fraught times inspired Shakespeare, as did the tyrants’ narcissistic personalities and the “cynicism and opportunism of the various enablers and hangers-on” surrounding them. These same forces, personalities, and motives give his work continued relevance.

Greenblatt sounded a discouraging note in saying that, while Shakespeare was brilliant at portraying causes and effects in his history plays, he does not point a way to solutions. “There aren’t any good ones,” he said. Yet, remarkably, civilization survived these conflicts and setbacks. On a more positive note, he concluded that what Shakespeare also teaches us is, “We are not alone.”

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive MeThe trials of women authors are laid bare this season in several movies (The Wife, Colette), never more amusingly and heart-breakingly than in director Marielle Heller’s honest comedy-drama, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on Lee Israel’s autobiography (trailer).

Melissa McCarthy is perfect as Lee Israel, a middle-ranking author of celebrity biographies in 1970s and 1980s New York, settling down into the ranks of the unpublishable. Lee can’t get her next project going—an unpromising, probably unsaleable biography of Fanny Brice. Her agent (Jane Curtin) won’t take her calls, her prickly personality has alienated any people who might have helped her, she’s behind in her rent and reduced to stealing a winter coat, and her cat is sick. Life is tough and so is she.

By chance, Lee stumbles upon a couple of original letters by Brice and sells them to the kind of antiquarian book dealers who trade in such collectibles. She soon learns bland doesn’t sell. What makes notables’ correspondence valuable is the personal touch, a bit of wit. She’s a writer; she can do this. And does.

Into her insular life arrives a comet of a man. Jack Hock, played with manic relish by Richard E. Grant, is Lee’s polar opposite. Gregarious and most probably homeless, he becomes her companion (the word “friend” would be tricky here), her drinking buddy, then her partner in crime.

The filmmakers initially saw Julianne Moore in the role of Lee, but they were so fortunate in casting McCarthy. Says Monica Castillo on RogerEbert.com, “The range in McCarthy’s performance cannot be overstated. At almost every turn, her character gives the audience plenty of reason not to like her. Yet, with Heller’s sympathetic approach and McCarthy’s acting, the movie humanizes her beyond caricature,” and Israel is presented with tremendous empathy and understanding.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 98%; audiences: 86%.

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The First Amendment Revisited

Founding_Fathers

created by Matt Shirk, creative commons license

You know how you don’t get around to reading a book or article only to have it pop up on your radar at just the right time? I feel that way about the February 2018 issue of Wired, that I found buried in a stack of magazines.

The theme of the issue, “The Golden Age of Free Speech,” is meant ironically. In college I was journalism major  and received a heavy First Amendment dose. Courses on The Law of the Press might have tapped secondary topics like slander, libel, and plagiarism (privacy didn’t come up) on the shoulder, but they really shook hands with the issue of free speech.

These days, free speech absolutism needs some rethinking. I’d rather reflexively subscribed to the Louis Brandeis notion that the cure for bad/hateful speech is more good/uplifting speech. That’s not good enough anymore, and I recall that Brandeis also said that “sunlight is the best of disinfectants.” Too many people dangerous to good public order are lurking in the dark corners of the Internet where the light never reaches. It’s like having nests of rats in the basement. One of these days, they’re going to burst into the kitchen.

In Wired, Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina, who is also an op-ed writer for the New York Times, provided a way to rethink my own conflicts on the First Amendment. Here’s the key passage:

The freedom of speech is an important democratic value, but it’s not the only one. In the liberal tradition, free speech is usually understood as a vehicle, a necessary condition for achieving certain other societal ideals: for creating a knowledgeable public; for engendering healthy, rational, and informed debate; for holding powerful people and institutions accountable; for keeping communities lively and vibrant. What we are seeing now is that when free speech is treated as an end and not a means, it is all too possible to thwart and distort everything it is supposed to deliver (emphasis added).

Thinking of free speech as a means, not the end, lets us look at the ends we are achieving now and judge whether free speech is helping or harming. She goes on to say that “today’s engagement algorithms . . . espouse no ideals about a healthy public sphere.” It’s become obvious that big social media platforms’ purposes do not extend very far beyond commercial self-interest and cannot be relied upon to make those judgments.

Tufekci gave examples of society’s aims, but we also can find them spelled out in the U.S. Constitution’s preamble: “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

It’s time to ask ourselves and our politicians whether those aims are served by unfettered speech, hate speech, propaganda masquerading as truth, and misinformation peddled by people who pretend to be other than who they are. The free speech banner isn’t big enough to hide them all.

Charley’s Aunt

Charley's Aunt

Seamus Mulcahy as “Charley’s Aunt” in an unguarded moment; photo, Jerry Dalia

Charley’s Aunt, the 1892 farce that ran almost 1,500 performances in London’s West End is remounted by The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in a sparkling, fast-paced production directed by Joseph Discher that opened October 27 and runs through November 18.

As the play opens, St. Olde’s College student Jack Chesney (played by Aaron McDaniel) is in his campus rooms, fretting over the draft of a letter to a young lady. He can’t get the news of his attachment quite right, and her family is decamping to Scotland on the morrow. He’s soon joined by his pal Charles Wykeham (Isaac Hickox-Young), suffering similar writer’s block over his letter to another young lady in the soon-to-depart group.

Charley, an orphan, is further flustered by information that his wealthy aunt, Donna Lucia D’Alvadorez will be arriving mid-day to meet him. Though she’s paid for his education from her home in far-off Brazil (“where the nuts come from”), they’ve never met. Jack soon concocts a plan to invite their lady-loves to luncheon in his rooms to meet Charley’s aunt, who can provide a suitable chaperonage. But how to get rid of her when they want privacy? Jack hits on the stratagem of adding their amusing friend Lord Fancourt Babberly—“Babbs” (Seamus Mulcahy) to the party. He can entertain the old lady, surely.

Babbs arrives and mentions he’s taken up amateur theatricals and is about to play an elderly lady in some production. (At this point, the direction of the plot is clear, which doesn’t subtract a bit from the enjoyment!) The costume is produced, Babbs dons it, and almost simultaneous with the arrival of the young ladies is a note saying Donna Lucia’s plans have changed and she cannot arrive for several days.

Poor Babbs is finagled into pretending to be the aunt and the fun is in full sway. More people join the luncheon party—Jack’s father, Colonel Sir Frances Chesney (David Andrew MacDonald) and the father and guardian of the young ladies, Stephen Spettigue (John Ahlin), both of whom have an eye on the fetching (and wealthy) Donna Lucia.

Although the story starts a bit slowly, once the plot gets rolling, there’s no stopping it. When Charley’s aunt—the real Donna Lucia (Erika Rolfsrud)—arrives after all, sizes up the situation, and keeps her true identity secret in order to torment poor Babbs, the catastrophes multiply.

The cast has a great deal of fun with the physical comedy and sight gags, including the three delightful ingenues: Emiley Kiser, Erica Knight, and Sally Kingsford. By maintaining his dignity regardless of the outrages he witnesses, Peter Simon Hilton’s Butler is a perfect comic foil.

Ultimately, the real success of the production rests on the shoulders of Seamus Mulcahy. His Babbs—mugging, fleeing, angry, amorous—is a treat from beginning to end and well earned the enthusiastic standing ovation he and the cast received.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

On the Big Screen

Looking for a weekend movie? If I had it to do over, out of these three, I’d pick First Man.

The Wife

Beautifully acted by Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce, and directed by Björn Runge, the movie is based on the book by Meg Wolitzer, who wrote the screenplay with Jane Anderson (trailer). For me, there was an unreality to the story’s central conceit that (in this day and age) a woman uses her writing talent to prop up her Nobel prize-winning and serially unfaithful husband for forty years. I ended up mad at her.

What I liked best? The smarmy performance of Christian Slater, determined to get a tell-all biography out of it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 85%; audiences: 80%.

Colette is another movie in theaters now about a woman writer whose husband takes credit for her work and about a lot else too, judging by the previews. I’m not a Keira Knightley fan. But Dominic West as her husband . . . that’s tempting!

First Man

The biopic of Neil Armstrong was directed by Damien Chazelle (trailer), with a screenplay by Josh Singer and James R. Hansen, who wrote Armstrong’s biography. Ryan Gosling does a fine job as the buttoned-up Armstrong, who can keep it together even when he’s on the verge of bouncing off the atmosphere into the void of space in the hair-raising opening sequence. And it’s fun to see Claire Foy as an American housewife rather than The Queen.

I liked the evocation of the 1960s throughout and those times, which, in retrospect seem simpler, but of course weren’t. The early days of the space program were a time of heroes, even though Chazelle doesn’t overdo it. Ignore the complaints that he doesn’t show the flag-raising ceremony on the moon. Chazelle wisely opted for a scene that would be meaningful to the very private Armstrong, not a rah-rah “we’re number one” ego-stroke for the country.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 88%; audiences: 64%.

The Old Man & the Gun

An aging Robert Redford portrays Forrest Tucker, a “gentleman bank robber,” who capped his career of prison escapes with an audacious escape from San Quentin at age 70. Written and directed by David Lowery (trailer), the screenplay also had help from David Grann, author of a 2003 New Yorker article about Tucker.

Sissy Spacek is a cautious but interested late-in-life romantic partner, and Casey Affleck plays a dogged police detective who follows Tucker’s career of robberies and won’t give up the case to overbearing FBI agents. I also liked his robbery team, Danny Glover and Tom Waits. It’s a pleasantly diverting entertainment, and you can safely wait for Blu-Ray.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 90%; audiences: 62%.

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