Joy Ride: Show People and Their Shows
New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 2015
This engaging collection of profiles and reviews written by John Lahr for The New Yorker during the past twenty years will indeed be a joy ride for those interested in theatre and, to a lesser extent, film. Lahr, fresh from the publication of his long-awaited biography of Tennessee Williams, released earlier this year, offers here a different reading experience. Highly readable, revelatory, and entertaining, the twelve dramatists and four directors profiled are an eclectic group featuring such relative newbies as Sarah Ruhl and stretching back across the centuries to William Shakespeare. The more than one dozen reviews are similarly eclectic and selected to connect to the accomplishments of one or more of the profile subjects, nicely enhancing appreciation of both.
For a longtime fan of Lahr’s New Yorker profiles, and his excellent, well-researched biographies of Williams, Joe Orton, and his own father, Bert Lahr, this latest collection does not disappoint. His profiles, which are extended encounters with individual artists that are part interview, part Lahr’s own informed reflections on the life and work of the subject, feature his obvious passion for theatre in all iterations. From the vaudeville and musical stage of his father’s era to the classics and the most challenging contemporary dramatists, the book is unsurprisingly a love letter to English-speaking theatre. What is surprising is the book’s celebration of the art of writing, as exemplified both in the varied accomplishments of the playwrights featured and in Lahr’s own vivid style and craft, revealing his long immersion in theatre as critic, profiler, and practitioner (he won accolades for scripting Elaine Stritch’s acclaimed one-woman show).
Though some of the profile subjects are now deceased (Harold Pinter, August Wilson, Arthur Miller, Clifford Odets, Mike Nichols, and Ingmar Bergman), these artists remain very much alive in frequent productions of their works and in Lahr’s mostly appreciative profiles. As far as living talents are concerned, including Ruhl, Tony Kushner, Susan Stroman, and more, the reader is provided a front row seat to observe major working artists in the midst of balancing the demands of their art, personal lives, and, in some cases, the burdens of fame. The profiles also add other dramatis personae to the book as, for example, in Stroman’s profile, in which a talented madman, Mel Brooks, interrupts her deep mourning for her husband, the late director Mike Okrent, bursting into her apartment singing “That Face,” a song he had just completed for his musical based on his 1968 film, The Producers (2001). Sliding down Stroman’s long hallway and leaping on to her couch for a big finish, Brooks reignited her desire to work, resulting in the phenomenally successful musical. Lahr’s text is rife with similarly hilarious and deeply touching anecdotes, and the reader – at least this reader – will not be able to get enough.
Despite its length, the reading of Joy Ride flies by, providing readers with a rich, rewarding, and, in a time of supposed decline for live theatre, an encouraging and unforgettable ride.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro