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Two of the Best

Courtesy of Cinema Guild

At last. A documentary that I didn’t even know I was waiting for. The title André Gregory: Before and After Dinner will immediately remind some of My Dinner with André (1981), in which Wallace Shawn, pre-eminent playwright, did indeed have dinner with him, and they fascinated many with their conversation. Film audiences, as distinguished from theatergoers, have not had much chance to learn more about Gregory, who has done theater direction that ranks with the best of our time—if not a bit better. His wife, the esteemed filmmaker Cindy Kleine, decided that Gregory, deserving greater renown, should have a film tribute. She has made it, not as a stiff memorial, but as a vivid portrait of the man that included much about his achievements. She is his second wife, twenty-four years younger, and her film is wreathed with affection.

Gregory, born in Europe in 1934 to Russian Jewish parents, was brought here by them before the war and attended Harvard. After the war, some circumspection, and some experience of Brecht’s Berlin company, he decided to work in the theater. He thus joined that small group in theater history who decided to work in the best of an art that is not often practiced at its best for our society and who thus were destined to fight circumstances in order to do their best work. When Stanislavsky came here with the Moscow Art Theatre in the 1920s—according to reports—the Theater Guild invited him to do a production. He was interested. They asked him how much time he would need for rehearsal and he said, “Two years.” It did not happen. Gregory foresaw the conditions, and when he was still young, he formed his own company. (He has always been funded, through his family, so his differences with convention were possible to him.)

I will note only the major productions and methods. He first came to wide attention with his Alice in Wonderland (1970), which was not the usual attempt to replicate the Tenniel illustrations but was Gregory’s exploration of his own childhood through Lewis Carroll’s means. What was almost equally notable was the fact that he had been rehearsing the production off and on for a long time and had shown it usually to invited audiences. (This idea of the chosen audience he probably got from the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, with whom he had worked.)

Courtesy of Cinema Guild
Andre Gregory

Now we can see his Uncle Vanya, which he also prepared over some years. He chose his actors, got their commitment, and rehearsed for a while; then they all went their separate ways; then some time later they gathered again, parted again, gathered, until after several years he began to invite viewers. One of them was the film director Louis Malle, and in time Gregory suggested that Malle not make a film of Uncle Vanya but film his production. It was done as Vanya on 42nd Street, available on DVD, and is the best filmed Chekhov I have ever seen. Into an empty theater on 42nd Street drift the cast, who begin to chat among themselves. Easily, almost privately, their talk slips into Chekhov’s dialogue, and the effect is like being lifted out of dailiness into enchantment. (Perhaps this is the moment to acknowledge that Gregory wrote a blurb for one of my film books. My praise stands.)

What is Gregory’s “Method”? As he says, he has none. But early in this documentary, there is a large closeup of his tanned aquiline face as he listens to two unseen actors rehearsing. His responses to their work are so sensitive that we know he is storing comment. Throughout the film, as he talks informally with his actors or rehearses with them, we hear the comments of a man fiercely sympathetic and perceptive, joyfully articulate. He says to us at one point that other directors add things because they have no time. He, on the other hand, strips away things—things that interfere with core truths. And we can see from these talks he has with his actors how they have grown together. For some years now they have been rehearsing Shawn’s adaptation of Ibsen’s The Master Builder, and Gregory has lately been inviting spectators. Jonathan Demme is now at work on a film of this production.

Through the years Gregory has done some acting, some of it in film. Here we get a glimpse of his John the Baptist in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. It is enough to show us that he knows whereof he speaks.

One quite different matter takes up so much of his conscience here that it must be mentioned. He recently learned that his father and uncle may have done some collaboration with the Nazis before 1933, and we see Gregory in Paris libraries trying to learn the truth. These scenes are sharp juxtapositions with his other efforts to find other truths.

For heaven’s sake! Another documentary I didn’t know I was waiting for—and am equally glad to see. It’s called Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay and it lives up to its swirling title. Ricky Jay, as I need hardly say, is a marvelous magician, also the author of books, who has been appearing around this country and abroad since he was a child. The film opens with a close-up of an airborne arc of playing cards from one hand to another, effectively declaring, “No, you can’t. But I can.” Indeed, on many of his posters he is billed with his fifty-two assistants—a deck of cards.

Theo Westenberger/The Autry Museum
Magician Ricky Jay.

The film starts with a relatively recent appearance at Harvard—a stocky, bearded, mature man dressed in a long Edwardian jacket which is doubtless crammed with secrets, speaking richly and confidently with the glow of success. He says, “If I could go back in history—and I can,” and on the ripple of the audience’s laughter he floats into autobiography. He was the childhood pet of his grandfather, Max Katz, an esteemed amateur magician. In fact, he spent most of his childhood and youth with his grandfather, who taught him tricks from early on but equally importantly taught him the need for practice and commitment. We see Jay performing at the age of four, then at twelve, and though he did not yet have his stream of invaluable chatter, he is clearly at ease. He went to Cornell, he tells us, though it is hard to see how he fit it in.

He is now a mature, intelligent, cultivated man who, while he performs incredible things with small animals, coins, cards, glasses, tells us of those twentieth-century masters from whom he learned so much. Several of them appear briefly, and no conference of brain surgeons was ever more serious than they are. Jay has occasionally appeared in films. We see a bit of him in David Mamet’s House of Games, and this leads to an interview with Mamet in which he testifies to Jay’s prowess. We also see Jay’s appearances through the years with such as Steve Martin and Dick Cavett, as well as his visits abroad. These last made me wonder what he did abroad about language. His talk is an essential part of his work. Does he speak other languages, or is the mere flow and tone of his voice sufficient as he performs?

We are led, too, to wonder what this smart man thinks as he performs these tricks through the years. Pride never falters. Perhaps it is pride that he belongs to the only profession on earth to which people crowd to be fooled.

In any case, thanks to co-directors Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein for their warm and tantalizing tribute to him.