Ghost Light

ghost lightThe Short Version: Frank Rich, former New York Times theater critic and current New York Magazine political commentator, reflects on his childhood and how he came to the theater as a young man.  It’s equal doses of the ups and downs of growing up in the 50s & 60s and how the theater used to be – and why those of us who love it, love it so.

The Review: It’s funny, I don’t know Frank Rich as a theater person.  Long before I started paying attention to the theater, he was chief critic at the Times – but I grew up knowing him as an op-ed writer, writing as much about politics as entertainment.  Right now, sitting in another open window on my browser, is his newest piece in New York, about the current feeling inside the Republican establishment.  So imagine my pleasant surprise to find that he, too, is one of the gang.  He’s a kindred spirit – in more ways than one.

I received this book nearly a year ago, as a gift from my old boss on the ‘last’ day of my internship.  It wasn’t, really – I’d stay at The Public Theater for several more months – but it was Eric’s last day before he left to take an incredible job at the Old Globe in San Diego.  His inscription gave me high hopes for the book – but, for whatever reasons (because there are always reasons, even if they’re bad ones), I left the book on my shelf.  But as the summer fades away and I find myself renewed by a week in London seeing theater, I realized that now was the right time to tap into the… let’s call it ‘reserve magic’ I had stored in this book.

And, for a theater boy like me, this book is a kind of magic.  As a memoir goes, it’s really nothing special – Rich’s home life wasn’t exactly happy but, as he writes at the end, there was love there.  His physically (and emotionally) abusive stepfather was also the one who encouraged his theatergoing habit and nurtured it into a full-blown addiction.  It’s a paradox of sorts but that’s just the way humans are.  His loving but somewhat distant mother, his childhood friends and early sweethearts, even the friends he makes in the theater world – they’re all just supporting characters in the love story between Frank and the theater.

The first show I saw – or remember seeing, anyway – was The Wizard of Oz with Mickey Rooney as The Wizard.  I don’t remember much of the show but I do remember two things: walking up the stairs to the balcony being awed by the gold, the lights, the buzz of the pre-show and the roar of applause that stopped the show when Rooney walked onstage.  To this day, I don’t know that I’ve seen a more impressive entry clap (and I don’t really go in for such things).  The show stopped for what felt like a full minute and he had tears in his eyes.  The rest of the show is a blur, an experience I wish I could get back but know I never can.

The reason I relate this anecdote – and why I’m spending my afternoon fondly recalling others from my theatergoing life – is that those similar anecdotes are the best part of this book.  The theater community is far different today from what it was in the 50s and 60s – for better or worse – and so there’s a duality here: there’s a communal “oh, so that was your first time?”/”oh, you saw THAT? with THEM?!” but also a “so that’s how it was in those days.”  Because I’ll be damned if there isn’t a nostalgic glow around the whole thing.  I’m talking warm-blanket-by-the-fire glow.

And maybe it’s just because I’m a theater lover.  Because in terms of a memoir, on the technical aspects, the book – like I said – isn’t anything extraordinary.  Rich nails it a few times: talking about having his first makeout in the emotional wake of Kennedy’s assassination, the indefinable malaise that comes from being in your teens, even that way you can be older than your years belie.  But for the most part, the scenes of trauma and those of homelife (good or bad) feel like they belong in a different book.  They certainly help enlighten the theatrical experiences but they feel separate from them as well.  But then, how can you separate them?  That feeling of escape, taking your seat and letting the lights go down and watching something, anything, play out in front of you… it feels that way precisely because of what’s happening elsewhere in your life.  The emphasis you put in your own mind on your escape versus what you’re escaping from is what makes the difference.  And for Rich, the emphasis was clear from the very beginning: it was always the theater.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.  Much as I want to just focus on the warmth of this book and the passion – the kindred love of that most incredible art form – I have to respect my solemn duty as reviewer and say that it loses a little bit for the sometimes-a-little-dull description, the occasional too-long scene.  But for anyone who loves the theater, this is a must-read.  It’ll make you remember those moments even more fondly, the moments that made you who you are now.  That first show, the first time you cried in the audience, your first date to the theater, the first time you see your own play go up, the first time you walk out onstage again after a break – or, in a description that still brings a tear to my eye, “watching the house fill up from the back of the Delacorte Theatre on a hot summer night.”  This book is to remind you – and to remind all the kids who are wondering if they’re the only ones who escape into theaters or books or whatever – that there are so many of us and we all feel exactly the same way.

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