Friday, May 22, 2020

YouTubing Our Way Through a Pandemic: Spike Lee Pays Tribute to New York, New York

In these difficult days (boy, how I’ve come to loathe the word “unprecedented”), we’re all looking to be entertained as we hunch in front of our computers or curl up with Zoom on the living room couch. Since we cinema buffs can’t go to the movies, movies are coming to us. And if we miss live theatre, enterprising stage performers are finding ways to do what they do best and then transmitting it over the airwaves. It’s not enough, of course, but for now it will have to do.

A friend alerted me that one of her favorite New York stage companies, the Irish Repertory Theatre, was sharing with its patrons a special Zoom production of Molly Sweeney, a 1994 play by Irish playwright Brian Friel. This production, by an award-winning dramatist who’s been called the Irish Chekhov, is a far cry from the bits of song and storytelling that have been passing as theatre on my iPad of late. It’s a full two-act play, but one superbly suited to the odd-ball medium we’re all using in the era of COVID-19, because it’s entirely made up of monologues. There are a total of three characters: Molly, her husband, and the doctor who restores her sight after forty-some years of blindness. They trade off narrating her story, one that starts with joy and ends in great sadness. Because in many ways this is a play about isolation, the fact that the three characters are filmed in separate venues makes all the dramatic sense in the world. Bravo to a company dedicated to preserving and presenting the work of Ireland’s many dramatic masters.

That production of Molly Sweeney, which starred Geraldine Hughes and two talented actors, was performed on a limited schedule for a limited audience. But on YouTube, anything goes, including Broadway performers (and Broadway wannabes) performing—from their separate spaces—selections from famous musical numbers, like the opening scene from A Chorus Line. Sometimes they aspire to be timely, like this hilarious Covid-inspired version of “The Cell Block Tango” (renamed the Zoom Block Tango) from Chicago. 

In a more serious vein, the ever inventive Spike Lee—filmmaker extraordinaire—has compiled a breathtaking three-minute inematic paean to his home town. To the upbeat strains of Frank Sinatra singing “New York New York,”  he gives us a tour of all the boroughs, emphasizing the charm of their landmarks (skyscrapers, brownstones, bridges, Broadway) along with the fragile beauty of springtime blossoms. It’s only gradually that we glean the fact that the streets of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens are nearly bare, rather than teaming with life. Yes, Lee shows us that the city that doesn’t sleep has become something of a ghost town. The usual New York traffic jams are no more. Taxis have been replaced by ambulances speeding toward hospitals, where heroes in masks and gloves whisk desperate bodies into intensive care. Central Park is crammed full of medical tents for COVID sufferers, and a hospital ship is moored just offshore. It’s a poignant view of a town that has starred in hundreds (maybe thousands) of films as a place of optimism, romance, and upward mobility.(See, for instance, Woody Allen’s Manhattan.) But through it all Sinatra’s voice resonates with its signature insouciance. You can take it as irony. But the Sinatra tune also seems to suggest that New York will once again rise from the ashes. And if we can survive the pandemic there, we’ll make it anywhere.

I  love the fact that Lee wears his heart on his sleeve, and that he shares his love for New York City with us all

With thanks to Beth Phillips, Hilary Bienstock Grayver, and Susan Henry for sharing too.

No comments:

Post a Comment