Sunday, August 31, 2008

Theatre Droppings: Visions of Hell edition

I visited two of the hottest shows in town at the moment, two extremely different pieces in very different styles, but with one element in common. Both plays reflect their own particular version of Hell.

2007's Pulitzer Prize winner for drama, Rabbit Hole, is finally making its regional debut, in a dynamite production at Olney Theatre Center. Along with Doubt, Pillowman, and others, it is responsible for a recent resurgence of interest in the contemporary dramatic play. David Lindsay-Abaire departs a bit from his usual fantastical concept (he wrote Kimberly Akimbo and Fuddy Meers, among other off-beat items), and has written an intimate portrait of a family attempting to emerge from the paralyzing grief caused by the death of a child. This seems to be a piece which, in the wrong hands, could come off over-wrought, and ripe for a Lifetime Movie (Citypaper's rave review mentioned the same thing, including the horrifying thought that the leading role would in that case be played by Meredeth Baxter). Olney's production avoids all the sentimental traps, and is a riveting success from start to finish.

The cast is led by Paul Morella and Deborah Hazlett as the parents of the lost child. Theirs seems a very realistic portrait of a marriage splintering into pieces; I never for a moment doubted they had been together for years (in the interest of full disclosure, Deborah is a close friend, and is yet another illustration of that phenomenon I've mentioned before: my friends always seem to be the highlights of their shows! Inexplicably, I take full credit). Megan Anderson and Kate Kiley play other members of the family, and both are very effective. Megan is saddled with a lengthy, "story" monologue at the very top of the play, during which the audience is trying to get used to the odd acoustics of the theatre. We can hear and understand everything, but it takes several minutes to adjust to the sound (the actors are wearing body mics). I have experience performing in this space (without mics), and can verify that the acoustics at Olney's New Theatre are not what they should be. Even with Rabbit Hole's box set shoved all the way downstage, it was deemed necessary to amplify the voices of this cast of very experienced stage actors. Why does it seem like so many brand new theatres have such lousy acoustics?
But I digress.

Kate Kiley, playing a role somewhat too old for her, nevertheless brings a welcome blast of humor to the role of the grandmother. Kate is an acquaintance of mine from the Shear Madness fold, and I was very impressed with her ability to deliver laugh after laugh while remaining absolutely connected to the truth of the moment.

The fifth character in the show, the teenager who is responsible for the death of the child, is played by Aaron Bliden, a student actor who hits all the right notes. His uncomfortable scene with the grieving mother is a terrific example of understated acting. Watch his finger tapping the plate.

Rabbit Hole is certainly one of the best things I've seen onstage in a long while, so I'm glad that the Washington Post (the "money review") sent Nelson Pressley to review it. He gave it a well-deserved rave, as has everybody else, but had the Post's Peter Marks been in attendance, there may have been a different outcome. Marks has lately revealed an impatience with plays about dysfunctional families; his review of Woolly Mammoth's Maria/Stuart pretty much flattened the piece, primarily because of his personal boredom with the premise of the "whacked-out family". The group currently living at Olney is surely dysfunctional, so Marks may have made mincemeat of this delicate, understated depiction of what can surely be described as a living Hell.

Studio Theatre has another regional premiere, containing a very different view of Hell. Jerry Springer, the Opera is exactly that. It is a huge production of operatic proportions, both in cast size and in size of cast. What is it about opera singers? Why are so many of them, shall we say, large of girth? Does all that extra body mass help hit those high notes? Whatever. I very much enjoyed this production, even as I had the same problem I have had with every single opera I have ever attended:

What are the words?

It must take a better trained ear than mine to determine what the singers are actually singing; such attention is paid to the length and purity of the note being sung, that the meaning of the actual word is often lost to me. And that's a shame in this piece, which is a wicked spoof of American popular culture. Studio has assembled a huge cast, numbering in the dozens, of singers and dancers, playing the low-life participants of a typical Jerry Springer episode, and the low-life audience members egging them on. This cast is so large, I couldn't possibly single them out, but I can report that the show is anchored by the only two Equity actors in the cast, Bobby Smith and Dan Via.

Smith has been on my radar since I first saw him at Studio in the leading role in A Class Act. He gave a wonderfully understated performance in Caroline, or Change several years ago, so I was doubly impressed with his flamboyant turn in Jerry Springer. He's a hoot as both the warm-up man for the Springer show, and as the Devil himself. Yep, in this show, the inevitable happens, and Jerry Springer goes to Hell. And why wouldn't he? I'm sure the couple sitting next to me would have applauded that fact, if they had stayed beyond the intermission. I think they may have been initially offended by the language of the piece; the F word was used so often it became meaningless (probably the authors' intention), and the C word was bandied about as well. Perhaps the pre-op transsexual was a turn-off, or the fat guy in the diaper, or any number of other deviants populating this world. I imagine, though, it was the line of tap-dancing Ku Klux Klansmen which finally drove this African-American couple out of the theatre, never to return.

Though I enjoyed the show, I found it to be overlong and a bit redundant. Yeah, we get it: Americans are fascinated with sleazeballs. But I suppose that is keeping with the usual structure of an opera: we are told the same thing four or five times in a row before moving on.

I have to commend Dan Via, who is currently playing the title role. I arrived at the theatre expecting to see Larry Redmond as Jerry, but apparently he could not continue with the show through its extension, and Via replaced him. Dan looks a bit young for the role, and is sporting the skankiest wig currently seen on any DC stage, but he is actually quite a gem. Act One is dominated by Jerry's freaky guests, but Via never fails to land his dry punchline. Act Two takes us to Hell, where Jerry finally takes center stage, and he is forced to host the most sacrilegious program imaginable. I give kudos to Via, who, throughout this sequence, managed to maintain a likable quality which I have never found in the actual Jerry Springer, who remains repugnant.
I came away from Jerry Springer: the Opera impressed with the magnitude of the piece, but curious: it seems inconceivable that the Studio Theatre Money Folks would allow 20 primo seats in the house to be occupied by members of the cast, thus robbing the theatre of thousands of dollars of income over the course of the run. It's a wonderful example of artistic need taking precedence over financial considerations. That is not the reputation the Zinoplex has around town. I wonder what those dozens of non-union actors, who are dancing their hearts out, singing their guts out, and stripping down to their underwear for every show, are getting for their efforts.
For me, THAT is a version of hell...

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Wind that Swept Through Georgia



It's been a tough summer for the few surviving cast members of the monster hit Gone With the Wind. Crane, pictured above on the right, passed away this weekend at the age of 90. He played one of the Tarleton Twins in the opening sequences of the classic film, and can claim to have uttered the very first lines of dialogue in the four-hour epic. Sadly, he will be remembered, if at all, as the other Tarleton Twin. His career was overshadowed by George Bessolo, the gent who played his brother. Don't recognize George Bessolo's name? After appearing in Gone With the Wind, he changed his name to George Reeves, and went on to play Superman in the early TV series of the same name.

This news comes on the heels of the death of another GWTW supporting player, Evelyn Keyes, who died July 4. Keyes had a much more substantial career than Crane, though she is remembered primarily for her active private life, which included marriages to director John Huston and bandleader Artie Shaw, among others. In the film, she played Scarlett's whiny sister Suellen, from whom Scarlett swipes a boyfriend, whom she then marries.

I probably know more than I should about these players and their characters. I must now come clean and admit that I am something of a Gone With the Wind fetishist. I suppose part of my attraction to this unwieldy, melodramatic film stems from Atlanta being my hometown. But I am sure that I hold this movie in high esteem for another, more personal reason: I have distinct memories of my mother taking my older sister and me downtown to view the film in one of its major rereleases in the early 60s. It was my mother's favorite film, so became one of mine. It has since dropped off many historians' radars, largely due to the unconscionable sugarcoating of slavery. Scenes of happy Negroes singing in the fields while picking cotton do not sit well with modern viewers.

But as a piece of fictional storytelling, I continue to admire it. Only a handful of actors from the film are still with us, including one of its major stars, Olivia de Havilland. Ann Rutherford, who played Scarlett's younger sister Careen, and Alicia Rhett, who played Ashley's jealous sister India, are still alive, as are the folks who, as child actors, played Beau Wilkes and Bonnie Blue Butler.

But mostly, the movie's huge cast is gone with ... well, you know...

I'll think about that tomorrow.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Theatre Droppings: Catch-Up Edition

Circumstances beyond my control have prevented my seeing as much local theatre this summer as usual. Primarily, my continued involvement with the staged readings at the Washington Stage Guild has occupied most weekends. I've been honored these past weeks to be included in these events, which have taken on a special meaning with the unexpected death of the group's founder, John MacDonald. The company is soldiering on. Our usual routine has been to gather late Saturday afternoon for a quick reading of the play, and even quicker discussion. Afterwards, some huge piece of animal carcass is tossed on the barbie, side dishes and drinks are whipped out, and a relaxed evening is had by all. The following day, Sunday, the cast gathers to read the play for anyone who shows up, once in the afternoon, and again in the evening. So, I've added to my previous list of roles which I had fun playing but would never attempt in a full production. In addition to those several roles, I played a young minister who questions the reality of the devil, when a magician arrives on the scene and spooks everybody. That play, Magic by G.K. Chesterton, could be a very effective piece fully staged.Also, I had an absolute ball playing a man decades younger than myself, a nincompoop who was attempting, without success, to swipe an inheritance, in a new translation of Goldoni's The Amorous Servant.

So, I have a good excuse to be a little lax in my theatre-going of late. I was able to pop back out to Totem Pole Playhouse a second time. I had previously been out to see a bunch of coconuts playing around in Lying in State, a play which was far beneath their talents. The show this time was a reliable old chestnut that everybody has heard of, but nobody ever does, Bell, Book, & Candle. From the film version, I was under the impression that the show had gangs of people running around the stage, but in fact, the play has only five characters. My buddy Ray Ficca was playing the comic foil, the brother of our heroine who is, incidentally, a witch. I enjoyed this production much more than Lying in State, as it was exceedingly well written, well acted, and well directed. It's said that this play was the inspiration for the long-running sitcom Bewitched, and that certainly seems likely. One aspect of the play which most people don't know, however, is that it is sometimes taken as a coded play about homosexuality. Its playwright, John van Druten, was gay (he's better known for his play I Am a Camera, which provided source material for the musical Cabaret). In B,B&C, van Druten populated his Manhattan scene with an underworld of undesirable creatures who in appearance were just like everyone else, but who held dark secrets. They even gathered in their own special nightclubs. One of the characters is a confirmed bachelor, and another is named Queenie. All very surreptitious, don't you think?

Today, I drove across the river to see Keegan theatre's Stones in his Pockets. The national tour of this piece rolled through town several years ago, and Rep Stage produced it more recently. My buddies at Wayside Theatre did it only a year or so ago. I didn't see any of those productions, so I was pleased to get the chance to catch the show here. I have only seen a handful of Keegan productions over the years. They do an eclectic mix of small, intimate pieces, new works, and big, blowzy musicals with gangs of people (they just closed Man of La Mancha yesterday at a different location). Usually, their work has an Irish bent, but that is not a hard and fast directive; one thing I admire about the company is their determination to do whatever the hell play they want, regardless of the logistics, or the timing, or whatever. Thus, 1776 graced their boards a couple of years ago, in a production with which I had some trouble. I noticed the same sort of trouble with The Hostage, another of their large-scale productions. The company is non-union, which gives them the freedom to tackle these big shows on a shoestring, but as happens in such instances, the audience gets one or two strong performances in the leads, surrounded by performances somewhat less than. (I've noticed the same phenomenon at Washington Shakespeare Company.)

But anytime I've caught one of Keegan's smaller shows, I've been impressed. They did a bang-up production of Picasso at the Lapine Agile a long while back, and their current effort is even better. On a blank stage with only a few chairs and a few boots, Keegan's cast of two creates the inhabitants of an Irish village being invaded by a Hollywood movie crew. The show is a delight, and the players are adept at the differentiation of character so necessary in a piece such as this. Matthew Keenan, who is new to me, lends a lot of heart to his roles, particularly the central role of Jake, and the walk-on role of Sean, a character which greatly affects the tone of the piece. Eric Lucas, whom I have enjoyed several times before at Keegan, is equally fine as Charlie, the second protagonist, and is also a hoot as the film's director and first AD.

I know I can be rather a prig about companies such as Keegan, sniffing that they should be on the road to becoming union houses and all that, but when I see one of their intimate productions, like the one described above, I can't really fault their direction too much. They are doing a lot right.

Malnutrition in America

Somebody needs to get this child a pork chop...

Saturday, August 16, 2008

This is My Nightmare

I often dream of performing in a pseudo-psychedelic setting to an audience of admirers. I am always bringing down the pseudo house with my showstopping performance.

Today, I ran across my dream turning into my nightmare. And I actually remember this clip when it was first run on network television.

Here are Cher and Tina Turner, rocking out to a medley of Beatles tunes. With abandon, they are bumping, grinding, and dancing around with each other. It seems they are having a terrific time with this medley.

Except it is not a duet.

It is a trio.

With Kate Smith.

Remember “God Bless America?” Yes, that Kate Smith. Trying to sing Beatles songs along with Cher and Tina Turner.

This clip is over 5 minutes long, but you only need to watch about half of it to understand my current nightmare. Cher and Tina are groovin’ to the songs. Kate is totally, hilariously, outrageously out of place.

And because of that, she is being ignored.

When I dream dreams like this, I am similar to Cher. Or Tina. Or sometimes Tim Conway, wandering through the mess, snagging a canned laugh. But I’m always one of the successful ones, fully in charge, fully confident, fully at home in the world.

That’s in my dream. But in my life right now, I’m awkward, insecure, out of place.

In my life, I’m Kate Smith.

Trying to sing “Hey, Jude.”

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Brideshead Repackaged

When the mammoth miniseries Brideshead Revisited premiered in the UK in late 1981, it's said that, across the nation, the chic younger set were showing up in trendy nightclubs carrying teddy bears. Nothing quite so precious happened in the states when the series was broadcast on Great Performances; university students were unlikely to be viewing anything on PBS in large numbers, much less this languid adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's 20th century classic. I was out of college by then, and when American TV critics started to single out the show as the finest series ever to be shown on television, I tuned in. (I won't necessarily concur that it's the Best Thing Ever On TV; perhaps later in these pages, I'll go on and on about my personal favorites. But surely Brideshead Revisited is in my top 5-10...).

A slimmed-down movie version of the story has recently hit the theaters, and I popped 'round to see it last week. There are many, many differences between the two, all of which have been commented upon by just about everybody. Though the original tale places Charles Ryder at its core, the film's dominating force is Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain. One need only view this ad for the flick to tell exactly whom the movie believes is the center of this story of doomed romance, and the affect of Catholicism on an aristocratic family. I love Emma Thompson, who doesn't? I was privileged to see her onstage in LA when she was brought to town by her then-husband, Kenneth Branaugh, to star in A Midsummer Night's Dream and King Lear. She stole the former as Helena, and was completely unrecognizable in the latter, playing the King's Fool. The range of this woman is indescribable.

But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself.

The original Brideshead made an international star of Jeremy Irons, playing the leading role of Charles Ryder, the outsider mixing it up with various members of the aristocratic Flyte family. The series should have made an international star of Anthony Andrews, too, but it didn't. I can't imagine why, other than to suppose that audiences were uncomfortable with his role as Sebastian, an alcoholic hedonist whose homosexuality clashes with his Catholic upbringing and causes his ruin. I for one could not take my eyes off this beautiful young man's performance, and when his character dropped out of the series about mid-way through, I found it difficult to keep my interest peaked. As Sebastian faded away in Charles's life, his sister Julia became the central antagonist, and I remember thinking, when the hell is Sebastian going to reappear?

The original miniseries was blessed with spectacular players all around, but its supporting cast was dominated by three world-class actors. Claire Bloom, playing the role currently being played by Emma Thompson, chose a much more subtle approach to this matriarchal monster. She created a loving, caring mother who, with nary a raised voice or eyebrow, kept her children subjugated to the strict Catholicism which was a central tone of the story. I admit that I preferred Bloom's characterization to the more brittle performance of Thompson in the film.

In the film version, Michael Gambon plays her estranged husband Lord Marchmain. In this instance, I preferred the movie's actor to the series's. Gambon has had a long and distinguished career, but cannot be considered a major movie star. He is a major actor, however, and his performance seemed pitch perfect to me. His job wasn't an easy one, I'm sure, for his predecessor in the TV series was Laurence Olivier, in one of his final roles. I never get tired of watching Olivier, even as I never forget that I am, in fact, watching Olivier. I almost never forget that I'm watching that terrific actor. But with Gambon, I was watching the character.

Olivier won the Emmy award for his performance, but I think the stronger work was being done by his contemporary John Gielgud, in the smaller role of Edward Ryder. His performance as the disengaged, distant father of the main character was for me a highlight of the series. Gielgud's brief scenes with Irons are hilarious, comic gems, and remain some of the best of his long career.

As for the current film, well, comparisons are odious, aren't they? How fair is it to compare a 14 hour series with a two and a half hour movie? Out of necessity, Charles's infatuations with first Sebastian, then his sister Julia, are condensed into the same time frame, turning the relationship into a more traditional romantic triangle. I don't have a problem with that. Neither do I have trouble with the lack of focus on the Oxford years or the other members of the Flyte family. Something's gotta give.

In the central role of Charles Ryder, Matthew Goode is a dead ringer for his predecessor Jeremy Irons. His understated work is a strong counterpoint to the flamboyant presence of Ben Whishaw as Sebastian. Whishaw's performance is much more effeminate than his predecessor's, but I think it worked quite well. It is the film's only performance which stopped my mind from making ongoing comparisons with the miniseries, and erased all thoughts of Anthony Andrews's previous interpretation.

Though Brideshead the miniseries remains near the top of many people's hit lists, the film is unlikely to make the same claim. But I enjoyed the movie immensely, and if you're interested in Waugh between the Wars, and can divorce the film from the series, it's worth the effort to revisit Brideshead.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

George Furth


Beginning his career as an actor, Furth played the odd-ball nerd with the nervous twitch on film and television in the 60s. Here he is in a typical over-the-top pose from The Monkees. He appeared in notable feature films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Shampoo, and Blazing Saddles. He found his lasting fame as a writer, penning plays and musicals throughout the 70s and 80s.

His Broadway credits include two substantial hits, and at least one substantial flop. Along with Stephen Sondheim, he created the landmark concept musical Company, for which he won the Tony. His later collaboration with Sondheim, Merrily We Roll Along, flopped heavily and closed after 16 performances.

He wrote several straight plays which made it to Broadway, most notably Twigs. A tour de force comedy in which a single actress plays a mother and her three daughters, the production was Michael Bennett's only successful direction of a non-musical play, and turned Sada Thompson, considered one of the most competent stage actresses of the period, into a Tony winner. Furth reached Broadway several more times with minor works, and penned the book for The Act for superstar Liza Minnelli's return to the Great White Way.

I've written previously about the Kennedy Center's productions of both Company and Merrily We Roll Along, and about the original cast album of Company as well. In the spirit of that groundbreaking musical, and in celebration of George Furth's contribution to the American Theater:

I'd like to propose a toast.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Eerie Resemblence

OK, I know I swore that these pages would be Olympics-Free during all the jingoistic hoopla, but I just can't help myself. Am I the only one who noticed this? Take a gander at this pic from the Opening Ceremonies:

The above picture reflects Chinese soldiers entering with their flag. You might think they were executing some kind of dance. Until you see this, a pic of soldiers in 1930s Germany:

China is starting to give me the creeps...

Friday, August 8, 2008

Mash Note to John Edwards

Dear John,

You're so dreamy!

You have always been a heartthrob just waiting to burst. Never mind that wife and those kids. Hey, they even made you sexier! And all that talk about family...HOT!!!

Heaven knows, you deserved a little outside recreation while your wife battles incurable cancer. Hey, I know a little something about watching a beautiful, elegant woman fighting to extend her life with treatments devised in hell by the Marquis de Sade. I watched helplessly while my mother underwent such horrors. What a downer that must be on the libido! Who can blame you for acknowledging your inner hound, and betraying your wife by gettin' some on the side? After all, you were voted the sexiest politician of 2000 by People magazine! It was practically your Civic Duty to prove them correct, and cheat on your wife.

Nobody in their right mind would expect you to keep it in your pants while your wife underwent chemo, radiation, or whatever other nasty things they did to her to try to keep her alive a little longer. Hey, those treatments are icky!

And please know that there are many of us out here who will refuse to listen when people call you a cad, a sleaze, a slime-bucket, and/or a douche. At least you've finally revealed an explanation for those $400 haircuts: you wanted to look good for your mistress!

Actually, "mistress" is probably the wrong word. From what I understand, this lucky gal was sleeping with so many guys at the same time that the paternity of her child is in question. I guess I should call her your "slut." Except that's not really exact, is it? I also understand that this woman was highly overpaid to produce videos for your campaign. Since she was receiving money for services rendered, I'm sure we would all agree that she was not your "mistress," nor your "slut." She was your whore. And I for one am not bothered by the fact that you were screwing her while your wife was busy barfing up her insides due to her cancer treatments. As I already said, what a downer that must have been for you!

John, I can't really argue with people who might label you a liar, an adulterer, and a hypocrite. I've just checked my dictionary, and you are all those things. But you are also a hero. You've proven to the world that Democrats can lead lives just as shameful as Republicans. And you've also proven that inside any man who mouths off repeatedly about the importance of duty, family, and integrity, there is a shithead prick dying to get out.

Call me.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Olympic Fever

Expectation regarding the Summer Olympics has been building for weeks, fueled by the already incessant media attention. With the spectacular over-indulgence of the Opening Ceremonies happening tomorrow, the fever is spreading. Will Chinese authorities attempt to censure international coverage? Will athletes drop dead from breathing the smoggy air? And most importantly, will the US teams win in all areas? If not, what's the point of it all? At least, that seems to be the focus of the coverage I have seen so far. This is nothing new. The main reason I avoid watching the Games is not because I don't enjoy them. It is because I cannot abide the coverage of the games, with the endless yakking by commentators, and the outrageously pro-American (and thus, anti- everybody else) slant of the coverage.

The last games which held any interest for me were the '84 summer games in Los Angeles, largely because I was living there at the time. These were the games in which the American gymnasts stole the show, winning gold for the first time in Olympics history, and generally putting the sport on the national map. I don't take anything away from those guys and gals (Mary Lou Retton was the darling that year), and back then, I could even name all the gymnasts on the team. (All the men, anyway. I can't imagine why...) But the Soviets were boycotting the games that year, in retaliation for the American boycott of the Moscow games four years earlier, so the gymnastic competition was much easier. The '84 Olympics also marked the return of the Chinese to the competition, who had been absent 32 years.

But even with all the Olympics hoopla in LA that year, I remember the games mostly because of the auxiliary international arts festival which surrounded the competition. Theatrical troupes from across the globe were invited for a weeks-long festival of theatre and dance.

Being the English speaking snob that I am, I had little interest in seeing something in a different language (I know, I miss a lot of good theatre that way, but pardonez-moi), so the shows I attended that year were mostly classics, presented by well-known companies. There was one dinky little play, whose name I don't recall, which took place in a foxhole during a war. Can't remember another damn thing about it.

American Repertory Theatre was in town, and Linda Lavin was headlining as Lady Sneerwell in School for Scandal. I also have a strong memory of seeing her in Six Characters in Search of an Author, but I can find no mention of that production on the 'net. I surely saw what remains my favorite production of Comedy of Errors, starring the Flying Karamozov Brothers (they're jugglers, of all things, but not bad actors either).

The highlights of the festival for me were the two shows brought by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Derek Jacobi was with them for that tour, and he gave two terrific performances. His Cyrano was preserved on video, and if you ever have a need to see the play, this is the one to watch. Jacobi's natural flamboyance really shines in this one. His other performance was as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, and I think this performance was even better. Sadly, it's not preserved on video.

I wonder if there is an arts festival accompanying the Beijing games? Probably not. These days, the games themselves are more theatrically staged than anything a playwright could dream up. I'm told, repeatedly, that all eyes will be on Michael Phelps, to see if he can match or beat Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals. I myself won't be watching. I doubt I'll follow the games at all. Because of my disinterest, you will find no more mention of the Olympics in these pages. Nope, I'll be switching the channel, or reading a book, or renting a movie. I won't be watching the games.

 anybody know if those Hamm twins are competing this year?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

TV Droppings: Mad about the "Men"

When Mad Men debuted over a year ago on American Movie Classics, the buzz was largely over its authentic atmosphere, and the fact that it was AMC's first scripted original series. I missed its first run, but when it was rerun a few months later, I caught up with it. I can't say I fell in love, but it did become interesting enough to me that I watched its first season of 13 episodes (that used to be called a miniseries, but in Cableland, it's a full season).

Mad Men definitely benefits from a second viewing, as I found out this week. Season 2 has begun, but before I leaped into the new episodes, I took the time to check out Season 1 again. Do you think I have too much time on my hands?

Via my cable company's On Demand channel, I ordered up episode 1 of Season 1, and became certifiably hooked. Two episodes a day, and I've completed the entire first season, much of which I did not recall from last year's viewing, and I'm well into the new season as well.

Mad Men is this year's critical darling, sweeping the Emmy nominations and making some history for cable programs. While last year, I enjoyed the detailed attention paid to the mis-en-scene of the series (1960 Manhattan), this time I caught much more of the subtleties going on in this story of Madison Avenue ad men and their lives.

Ad agency Sterling-Cooper is no McMann & Tate. The guys booze it up at all hours, Bloody Marys are served at morning client meetings, and each and every character lights up a cigarette in each and every scene.

The atmosphere created by the series is so evocative, I found myself watching most of the episodes with a Virgin Mary (with salt!) at my side. You just have to.

The show is a definite ensemble piece, but it does have a leading man in Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, a flawed mid-level executive with real personality issues. I can't recall a more unheroic leading man in a series: he cheats on his wife with a bohemian artist, then cheats on her with a wealthy client. He lies about his past, his present, and even his name. He's a coward, an army deserter, and turns his back on the little brother who finds him, causing his suicide. What a guy!

...if a guy looks that good in a tux, we'll forgive him almost anything...

A young actress with the unlikely name of January Jones is playing our hero's dutiful wife, with a coolness so chilly you need a sweater to watch. Really, this is one of those performances that took me many episodes to appreciate. For a long while, I thought this actress simply wasn't doing anything. But as such things often do, she crept up on me, and when her breakout scene arrived at least two thirds through the first season (shooting her neighbor's pet pigeons with a BB gun), I bought it. This is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She's nuts.

You've never heard of most of this show's cast, though one or two faces will be familiar. The series's female lead (at least, she's getting top billing over the other women in the opening credits), is Elizabeth Moss, who spent some time playing the president's daughter in The West Wing. Here is another actress that took several episodes to warm up. For a while, I thought her interpretation of the mousy secretary was pretty one-note, but as the season progressed, she started to shine, just as her career took an unexpected path (and her ethics, a downward turn).

As almost always happens with me, I found myself attracted more to the supporting characters than to the leads. I suppose that stems from the fact that I am usually more comfortable playing supporting roles myself. At any rate, there are two real standouts in this large cast, and they dominate every scene in which they appear.

John Slattery is one of the strongest character men currently working in Hollywood, and he's had a pretty impressive year. He played one of the Desperate Housewives's husbands for a season, but was written off when his character was skewered by a flying picket fence during a tornado. Gotta love the realism on that show, right? But Slattery's tour de force performance of the year was on Mad Men. His portrayal of Roger Sterling is a subtle triumph; with only a flick of his cigarette ash, he creates a fascinating study of the hard-living, hard-drinking, womanizing head honcho, the boss everyone loves to hate. And hates to love. His chemistry with series star Jon Hamm is fraught with tension and palpable, conflicting emotions. Their surface camaraderie masks a wary suspicion, clearly evidenced in the episode in which Sterling, tipsily lowering his guard, flirted with Draper's wife. With cool, treacherous resolve, our hero manipulated a shattering humiliation for his boss; it was season 1's finest episode. And the most ewww inducing...

Slattery is up for an Emmy, and should win. And not just for that scene with the, um, reappearing oysters.

For my money, the standout performance in the series is being given by Christina Hendricks as office manager Joan Holloway. Dressed to accentuate the curves which were regarded as highly attractive in those years before Twiggy, she sails through the secretarial pool like a luxurious yacht. Her purr is both seductive and predatory, yet reveals a soft soul. It's a beautiful, painful portrait of the working girl of the era.

Other supporting actors of Mad Men have their moments, particularly Vincent Kartheiser as squirrelly Pete Campbell, and Broadway vet Bryan Batt as closeted art director Sal Romano. Here's a picture of the two actors at last year's wrap party, obviously heady with the success of their show:

The creators of Mad Men have afforded us theatrical types a private joke in the casting of Robert Morse as Bert Cooper, the senior partner of the ad agency. Morse's career was launched (and arguably, peaked) when he played the young corporate climber in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in the early 60s, the exact period in which Mad Men is set. 45 years later, he's returned to the era to play the elder executive; it feels like a sly wink and a nod to those of us who are aware of this actor's history.

The second season of this remarkable series is off to a good start, ratings-wise, and its record-breaking number of Emmy nominations (more than any other drama this year, unique for a basic cable series) is already adding more buzz. I often avoid shows with that kind of buzz (I didn't catch up with The Sopranos until season 3), but I hope all the hype means we'll be watching the Mad Men of Sterling Cooper for some time to come. Shake up a martini and join the fun!