As noted below, I'll be joining Bill Steelman of Essex Heritage at the mic for First Friday at the Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport on April 5. That's a member event (although you can join that night and still get in on the buffet and drinks). But everyone is invited when I'll be on a panel at the Newburyport Literary Festival on April 27. Ghlee Woodworth and I will talking about Newburyport walking trails, local history, the byway and so forth at 11 a.m. at the Newburyport Art Association. And best of all, it's free! And I'll be the speaker at the Lynn Museum's annual membership meeting in May. In each case I'll be selling and singing the Byway Guide for interested parties.
Only one show left, Sunday at 7:30pm, for "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" at Oberon. I've written about the theatrical adaptation of this Boston crime classic by Bill Doncaster a few times over the past year, including attending its first reading more than a year ago in the back room of the Burren. Thursday night I finally got to see the full version at Oberon - I brought my dad, who took me to the movie back in 1972, and we scarfed beers and burgers over at Charlie's Kitchen first to get in the old-school mood.
The play was everything I expected, with its network of conspiratorial conversations staged all around Oberon and sometimes overlapping as the web of circumstance tightens around the characters. I don't review plays I write about, but this was dark fun. Special nod to Rick Park as the bartender/ex-con Dillon, whose seemingly genial, reasonable exterior is gradually revealed as a disguise. Peter Darrigo is also effectively real as a familiar kind of cranky, self-aggrandizing, working-class Masshole; it's just that Jimmy Scalise's gig involves guns and banks instead of power tools or paint brushes.
I'm still debating the depiction of Coyle himself by Doncaster, director Maria Silvaggi and actor Paulo Branco. Mind you, they deliver on their artistic intent - I'm just not sure I share their interpretation 100%. Sure, the movie's performance by Robert Mitchum gave the character more gravitas than author George V. Higgins may have intended, but the Coyle they give us in the play is a total mook.
Overall, this is a compelling restaging of the tale, and last I heard, there were only a couple of handfuls of tickets left for the final performance, at 866-811-4111 or cluboberon.com.
Actually it's W.E.L.D.E.R., if you want to get technical about it, which stands for Word Examination Laboratory for Dynamic Extraction and Reassessment. It's an iPhone and iPad game debuted this month by Ayopa Games and Highline Games, a startup from some of the Rockstar NYC people. And it has been the largest single time-suck in my life for about three weeks now. Gameplay combines elements of Scrabble, Tetris and an old-school Jumble. And the touch-screen interface is so well-designed that it's just about impossible to put down. All the uncool kids are doing it.
When you start playing, you face a 64-tile board, much like Scrabble, only it's filled with random letters and a few blank tiles. Tap one letter, then another, and they swap places. The idea is to move them around to make a four-letter or longer word, generally using as few swaps as possible. Double-tap a blank tile and a virtual keyboard appears so you can chose a letter to fill it.
In the first round, it's only adjacent tiles that you can swap, but in subsequent rounds more complicated parlays are available. Each word you make disappears from the board, and random letters slide down to fill in, sometimes forming words on their own, like a Webster's pachinko machine.
Each round you get only so many swaps to make so many words, and the more creative you are in your choices, using rarer letters, the higher you score. More scoring buys you more swaps...
Non-word people are glazing over about now. But what's really addicting about this game - what's making it spread like wildfire, at least among my Bay State tribe - is the interface. The skin is a subtle mid-century Cold War modern, with peeling paint and big red and green buttons, like a word game in a missile silo. Here and there are touches of steampunk, like the brass-framed ticker scoring your words across the bottom of the game board. (Tap a word there, and you get a definition.)
And the sound design features two tracks. While you're thinking, there's an ominous ambient hiss and flutter, like the sound of slow decay in that missile silo or on early first-person shooter games. Feedback arrives as a clanging, dinging clamor when you make a word, reminiscent of the doors and gates sliding down on the opening credits of "Get Smart" or "MST3K." Over all the sense is of being a cog in a machine, combined with a meaningless Pavlovian payout each time you score. Why this is so appealing, I can't say. The sounds also annoy the crap out of anyone in the room with you, which may or may not be desirable.
The game's only real flaw is the dictionary, which misses some obvious words and includes others, while mostly skipping swears that would really come in handy sometimes. But they're taking dictionary suggestions at email@example.com.
Last I looked, WELDER was $1.99 on the App Store, but it's sometimes discounted to 99 cents. My phone is an Android so I can't say how it would play on that smaller screen, but on iPad it's an addictive joy. I'm stuck on Level 8 at the moment, and my wife greeted the news that I'd scored 670 for PURRS thanks to bonus tiles with the same kind of cheerful but not actually excited "awesome" that she gives when I call her in to see a sports highlight on the news. But by then I was already on to the next word...
"The Friends of Eddie Coyle" comes to Oberon in Cambridge in December and January, and tickets are on sale now at the production's web site. Playwright Bill Doncaster's adaptation of the Boston crime classic drew an enthusiastic capacity crowd for a reading in the back room at the Burren some months back, with author George V. Higgins' widow in attendance. Higgins is enjoying something of a resurgence now, which also includes an upcoming Brad Pitt movie of "Cogan's Trade" (shot, alas, elsewhere). "Coyle" is, as Doncaster says in the video below, still the one against which "badass Boston crime stories are measured." Director Maria Silvaggi returns along with Paulo Branco as Coyle, Rick Park as Dillon and other cast members. Tickets are $20-$35, and the 11 performances take place between Dec. 8 and Jan. 15. I suggest getting yours now.
I went to bed early Wednesday night. Before I went downstairs this morning, I picked up my phone to check email and saw a fresh message from playwright Bill Doncaster. “A little overwhelmed by the karma,” he wrote. “When I started this, would never have predicted Higgins' work would be back on the rise, the Bruins would win the cup again, and Whitey would get pinched. A little surreal.”
Wait, what? I read it again to make sure he wasn’t joking, then ran to turn on the TV. Sure enough, a couple of days after the start of a new FBI ad campaign, they’d finally caught Whitey Bulger.
Doncaster wrote a stage adaptation of George V. Higgins’ classic 1972 Boston crime novel, “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” which limns the same Irish-and-Italian mob scene where James “Whitey” Bulger ruled before he went on the run 16 years ago.
“I was more shocked than when they got Bin Laden,” Doncaster said by phone later in the day. “I heard his name and thought, they’re not still reporting on that ad campaign are they? And then I heard the word arrest.”
Doncaster’s play was cheered in a staged reading at the Burren in Davis Square last November, with Higgins’ widow in the audience. And he recently announced that a full production of the play will begin performances Dec. 8-Jan. 15 at the ART’s Oberon venue on the edge of Harvard Square. (Doncaster notes that while Bulger was a Southie phenomenon, the fictional Coyle came from Cambridge's Central Square.)
The play is just one sign of a Higgins resurgence, the biggest being that Brad Pitt spent part of the last few months filming an adaptation of “Cogan’s Trade” in (alas) New Orleans. Doncaster is putting together a non-profit to finance his production and will sart raising money sometime next month. You can go to www.thefriendsofeddiecoyle.com and sign up for email updates.
Doncaster and I had already joked recently about the timing of the Bruins championship. One of the best remembered moments in Peter Yates’ acclaimed “Coyle” movie is when Robert Mitchum, as the drunken hood Coyle, cheers on “Number four! Bobby Orr!” The last Bruins’ Stanley Cup triumph was in… 1972. But the Whitey capture takes karma to a new level.
One of the key characters in “Coyle” is Dillon, a felon who is the silent owner of a bar (like Bulger and Triple O’s), a government informant playing both sides of the street (like Bulger) and, it turns out, a killer (like Bulger). Doncaster said that Higgins, although he’d been a federal prosecutor, always maintained that Dillon was an invention and not based on Bulger.
"I get asked about that pretty frequently,” Doncaster said. “With the similarities…it’s easy to jump to that conclusion.”
In Doncaster’s production, Rick Park plays Dillon. I’d recently asked Doncaster to put me in touch with Park on an unrelated matter, and when he emailed me this morning, his original intent was just to make sure I’d heard from Park.
“Very, very strange,” Doncaster said with a laugh.
Not as spooky as the real thing, though. Doncaster met Bulger “for two seconds” back in the 80s. “My girlfriend at the time lived in the neighborhood. Scary guy, even in a brief meeting.”
The Tannery Series in Newburyport offers its final event of 2010 this weekend, "One Furious Feast," celebrating the original Thanksgiving idea, "Two different worlds - mutually incomprehensible, occasionally hostile - brought together at one table." Actually this is like your family and both sets of in-laws, because three authors will be reading. Harvard Review editor Christina Thompson touches on cannibalism and romance in "Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All," her account of marriage to a Maori man. PEN Award winner Rishi Reddi reads from "Karma and Other Stories," tracing Indian-Americans "as they search for a freedom that transcends both custom and country." And poet Daniel Tobin, who connects Ireland and America in traditional forms and free verse, will read from the brand new "Belated Heavens," which encompasses "Babylonian gods and paparazzi, medieval cartography and DNA." The event is at Jabberwocky Bookstore in the Tannery mall in Newburyport, Saturday at 7 p.m., and it's free! (Full disclosure, the organizers, Dawne and Kirun, are my friends and neighbors, but after previous events with the likes of Steve Almond, Peter Guralnick and Major Jackson, I'd be all about this anyway.)
Start with full disclosure: Rosemary Herbert and I worked in the same corner of the Herald newsroom for seven years. She was the book review editor until we both left, in 2005. Now a freelance writer on the North Shore, she's out with a mystery, "Front Page Teaser," that draws on her days at the tabloid terror of Harrison Avenue.
Back in the 1990s, Herbert said with a laugh, a Herald editor told her, "We'll hire you on one condition: when you write about us, change our names."
As she notes, the Herald still had some old-timey newsroom flavor and colorful personalities, for better and worse. Turned out we each had a different model in mind for a character in the book, a columnist everyone wants to strangle as he "read his work-in-progress aloud to himself, so as to better appreciate the flow of his golden words."
But she says the book is intended as "a love song" to the newspaper life as it was "and I hope not an elegy."
"Front Page Teaser" tells the story of Liz Higgins, a lifestyle features writer for the pugnacious "Boston Banner" who's hoping to do better than a teaser with her investigation of the mysterious disappearance of a Newton housewife. Does the solution to the case lie in a hint of a terror connection or closer to home? She'll do anything to get answers - including swiping possible evidence from a murder scene, which even the most hardened newshound would not do today. I hope.
Herbert does a good job with Herald-style headlines. When a Newton mayor's Hanukkah dance with some schoolkids is interrupted by bad news, the Banner's "wood" the next day is HORA HORROR. Sounds about right. There is much less cursing in the Banner newsroom than the Herald's, though.
On Saturday, Oct. 16, a big chunk of Boston’s reading public will gather in and around Copley Square for the second annual Boston Book Festival, which is rapidly becoming a viable antidote to pessimism surrounding books and literature and reading in our culture. And at 2:30 p.m. that day, a sizable subgroup will gather at the Church of the Covenant, 67 Newbury St., to discuss Tom Perrotta’s short story, “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face.” It’s the kickoff of the festival’s One City, One Story project, and copies of “Happy Chang” have been available free around the city for weeks. You can go download your own right now - and get all your festival information - at www.bostonbookfest.org.
Although the f-word appears once or twice, the story fits a little more traditional template than I’d expect from Perrotta: the classic depressed-white-suburban-guy-who’s-screwed-up-his-life-and-family tale, a la Cheever and Updike and Don Draper. But as with Perrotta’s terrific novels “Election” and “Little Children,” the difference is in the very up-to-date details - girls play Little League now! - and the pained candor of the protagonist, who’s just a little bit worse of a person than he’d like to be. Perrotta’s prose is as usual crystal clear and conversational, the kind of artful that you don’t notice unless you’re looking for it.
The story is set in the New Jersey bedroom community, but I pictured Reading or Wakefield or maybe Belmont, where Perrotta lives. Clearly Perrotta had local inspiration: Sportsmanship has been on the whole town’s mind after one father beat another into a coma in a dispute after a high school football game. The story takes place during a championship ballgame that Jack, the protagonist, is umpiring. His annoying neighbor, a former friend, is one of the coaches. There’s a girl on the mound, a beanball issue, and another fight. And Jack finds himself pressed to make a crucial call.
I suppose it’s a good first choice, one intended to show that literature can be about the lives we actually lead, as well as to showcase a local author. No doubt plenty of people will have something to say in next Saturday’s town meeting, featuring Perrotta and Mayor Tom Menino. The story raises interesting questions about violence, though not the kind of violence that has bloodied the city’s streets lately. Maybe next year’s choice will be a little less suburban.
If an experimental film that's "a Norse-inspired, music-filled mini-epic without dialogue, in which a crashing car opens a gateway into three parallel worlds and time periods, all linked by a mythological quest" sounds like your cup of tea, well, you're off my Christmas card list, but you might want to get down to the Coolidge Corner in Brookline on Oct. 21 at 8 p.m. to see Melissa Auf der Maur.
The former bassist for Hole and Smashing Pumpkins - and no doubt witness to years of Courtney Love-Billy Corgan rock'n'roll melodramas - will be screening her 28-minute HD fantasy film "Out of Our Minds (OOOM)," which is part of "a conceptual multimedia project that includes her 2010 solo album of the same name and a comic book." Needless to say, she also stars in the movie, which supposedly blew some minds at Sundance this year. Afterwards she'll take questions and then rock the house.
"I feel that we need to take time to travel out of our full-time order machine, to the other side of ourselves more often," Auf der Maur says in the press release. "The realm of the heart is enriching as it usually involves love, music, and poetry, but also because it can be a fantastical journey into the subconscious. In this film, the use of music rather than dialogue and iconic character defined solely by actions was the key in telling a story that speaks to our emotions, not the rational mind."
Tixt are $15 general admission ($12 for Coolidge members and students) at www.coolidge.org or the box office.
Sunday kicks off a weeklong celebration of the life and work of poet Charles Olson (1910-1970), who called Gloucester home for much of his life and wrote about it in his magnum opus, the unfinished "The Maximus Poems." Beginning Sunday, The Charles Olson Society of Gloucester in partnership with many others has scheduled Olson 100 events including art exhibits, readings, discussions and a book-signing with David Rich, editor of "Charles Olson: Letters Home," Sunday from 4-6 p.m. at the Cape Ann Museum.
Sunday also features poet and novelist Ammiel Alcalay reading from and signing copies of his recently published novel “Islanders,” at 7 p.m. at the Bookstore of Gloucester, 61 Main Street. Alcalay grew up as a summer resident of Rocky Neck, with Charles Olson as a close friend of his parents. He has written extensively about Olson and his childhood memories of Gloucester.
A complete schedule of events and lots more information is here.