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Composer and Koreans

By John Simon
I am not especially fond of one-person shows, but “Maestro,” a quasi-docudrama about Leonard Bernstein, who was not only an important conductor and composer, but also a hugely popular TV music educator, as well as quite a good writer, did not seem like a bad idea. However, as T.S. Eliot might have said, between the intention and the execution, falls the shadow.

Hershey Felder, who put together the show and impersonates Bernstein, is far from the most felicitous choice for the task. He has culled the right stuff from Bernstein’s writings plus some apt addenda from others, with informative and entertaining result. He is also a solid pianist performing the profuse musical examples, and even a passable singer of musical comedy numbers.

But, to begin with, for a first person autobiographical piece, he does not begin to have Lenny’s good looks. He lacks even the two requisite wigs for the younger and older man; the one that he does have is unsightly, and, in back, not even seamlessly fitting. A Canadian, he does not sound like the man, and his enactment, though not unamusing, is on the hammy side.

He is glaringly off when impersonating some Bernstein interlocutors, such as the conductors Dimitri Mitropoulos, Artur Rodzinski, Fritz Reiner and Serge Koussevitzky, reducing their Greek, Polish. Hungarian-German or Russian accents to a kind of omnibus foreign. Not even the Yiddish-accented curmudgeonly father and loving mother sound wholly convincing. Sometimes the empty chairs with which Leonard is conversing convey more to our imagination about their supposed incumbents.

What he does impart to us, however, is Bernstein’s boundless enthusiasm and matching ego-centrism, and his achievements in sundry branches of music. This includes instrumental, chamber, and symphonic, his own as much as others’, notably his adored mentor Aaron Copland’s and that of his beloved Mahler, whom he established in America more so than Mahler himself was able to...

But there are also his contributions to musical comedy, for such winners as “On the Town,” “Wonderful Town,” “West Side Story,” “Candide,” and the film score for “On the Waterfront.” It has been my feeling that he was best at sophisticated musical comedy, and should have concentrated on that until his relatively early death at 72 (conductors tend to be remarkably long-lived), and forget about classical music, especially attempts at opera and the disastrous “Mass.” First-rate in musicals, he even contributed a few neat lyrics, holding their own against such giants as Steven Sondheim, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green.

And then there is Bernstein’s conducting, internationally famous but hard to convey, which I have compared to a frenetic French chef on TV, reaching for ingredients on several overhanging shelves as well as far-flung horizontal surfaces. The projections by Christopher Ash certainly fail to capitalize on it. There is also relatively little about Lenny’s marriage to the actress Felicia Montealegre, which faltered due to his increasingly unfettered homosexuality. Still, Felicia’s death is rather moving.

Direction is by Joel Zwick, good as far as it goes, which in this case did not have to be very far. From the program notes, I learned that Felder is married to Kim Campbell, Canada’s first female Prime Minister, which is as solid an achievement as his various theatrical shows, even though her term is by now over.

Playwrights Horizons has mounted “Aubergine,” by the Korean American playwright Julia Cho. Its quaint subject is an unlikely combination of cooking and dying, of eating and hovering over the bedside of a dying man. 

We have a character labeled only “Ray’s Father,” a first generation Korean-American, mostly dying center-stage, asleep or in a coma, although he does get one brief animated display of anger, in a cuisine scene. He disapproved of his son, Ray, who is a great chef though not currently working at it, and is even ill at ease with his rather forthcoming and still less Americanized Korean girlfriend, Cornelia. There is also a wise hospital worker, Lucien, of undefined origin, a specialist in dealing with the moribund and their families, and prolific in dispensing sagacious counsel.

Ray’s Uncle, who speaks no English, only Korean, with Cornelia, is summoned forth and keeps fussing with his dying brother as well as uttering all kinds of largely traditional wisdom, translated into English surtitles projected up high on a wall. Lengthy Korean conversations between Uncle and Cornelia are sometimes rendered in English subtitles or, quite arbitrarily and frustratingly, not at all.

Various comestibles play cameo roles, notably fish, mulberries and, yes, aubergine, a more elegant synonym for eggplant derived from the French. An altogether too long portion of this fairly long play, feeling even longer than it is, consists of extensive monologues, including a bookendish prologue and epilogue delivered by Diane, an ardent gastronome, totally absent from the rest of the play.

What we get is a highly discursive (loquacious, garrulous—you choose) play, going off on a host of tangents Ms. Cho cannot resist, and climaxing in some six or eight seeming endings that, much to my regret, only debouch on further unexploited endings. It has been justly remarked that what she ought to have made of this material is a novel.

By way of scenery, we are periodically confronted with a tall, pale, semicircular wall of contiguous panels that splits in two at the middle, with the halves rotating partially or wholly away. This replaces a curtain as grandly as aubergine does eggplant. It is more than likely a joint idea of the author and the fine set designer Derek McLane, who cleverly uses some asymmetrical inner walls. There is moody lighting by the gifted Peter Kaczorowski, and unfussy but evocative direction by the excellent Kate Whoriskey.

Impressive is the fine acting by all: Sue Jean Kim (Cornelia), Michael Potts (Lucien), Joseph Steven Yang (Uncle), Jessica Love (Diane and Hospital Attendant) and, most notably, Tim Kang, as the tormented protagonist, Ray. As the Father, Stephen Park is dutifully asleep or comatose for long stretches, but makes the most of his one vertical scene.

This is clearly an autobiographical piece, as a long program note by the author makes clear. Unfortunately, that note, which includes late-night snacks of ramen (noodles) uniting father and daughter, is much more revealing and interesting than anything in the play, what with story-telling that further conveys a novelistic rather than dramatic gift. We learn quite a bit about Korean dishes such as jajangmyun, the children’s preference, and jjumppong, Father’s favorite, none of which makes it into the play. Strange language Korean: how do you pronounce an initial double j or even a medial double p? If anything, “Aubergine” should have judiciously deployed more Korean rather than less. But judicious Ms. Cho is not.

John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review, New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and for The Washington Post. To learn more, visit his website: