A little bit off-balance

I generally pride myself on balancing work responsibilities with my private life (including this blog), but I’ve been doing more freelancing lately, and the job I’m working on right now has completely overwhelmed me.


Now playing at the Barrymore Theatre on Broadway.

I’m sure many playwrights could write a play ostensibly about music or dance or poetry that’s ultimately about love and lust. The arts lend themselves to such things. Using some sort of inherently dramatic field like politics or war or religion as a conduit wouldn’t be too difficult either. But it takes someone like Tom Stoppard to bring out the passion in mathematics and theoretical physics. Arcadia is impressive simply for that achievement.

And honestly, were it not for that unlikely alchemy, Arcadia is the kind of hyperliterate play that easily could have been impressive but not particularly loveable. The subject matter sounds so dry, the structure so highly composed, that one could be forgiven for expecting something a bit cold and airless, but Stoppard finds a way to make it just the opposite. Arcadia somehow lives up to its blissful, verdant name.

Pompeii the Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius

Special exhibition at Discovery Times Square through September 5.

The famous maxim has it that tragedy plus time equals comedy, but comedy isn’t the only yield of that equation. You also get a ghoulish sort of wonder. Sure, if you choose to imagine what it might have been like in the Roman city of Pompeii when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE—if you truly contemplate the violent tremors and the widespread fires and the blackened sky—the event becomes almost unbearably grim. But why do that? With a few steps and more than nineteen centuries back, it’s not grim so much as fascinating: a thriving city preserved like a mosquito in amber. It’s incredible.

So I admit I half resented Discovery Times Square’s exhibit on Pompeii for rattling my sense of distance. I was happiest marveling at the artifacts of daily Roman life and reading over the scientific descriptions of the volcano eruption, but the exhibit seemed determined to strip me of my intellectualized stance. The famous plaster casts of the volcano’s victims are heartbreakingly detailed up close. You can see the faces contorted in fear, the hands grasping for loved ones, and in a dark room, with an eerie white noise filling your ears, the humanity of those victims and the horror they endured feels uncomfortably present. The effect is powerful—and appropriate, I suppose—but nonetheless, I missed my academic aloofness.

The Orchid Show: On Broadway

Special exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden through April 25.

When you enter the conservatory for the New York Botanical Garden’s annual orchid show, you’re directed first through the permanent exhibition of desert and rainforest habitats—the latter of which is augmented with extra orchids for the occasion. In a lesser garden, this might be a drag, but the permanent exhibition is stunning, packed with plants so colorful and dramatic and unusual that they look unreal. Viewing the orchids in this context, with the accompanying literature, also provides some sense of how they fit into the natural world, clinging to the branches of a tree or huddled, small and secret, on the forest floor. Amid their native compatriots, the flowers seem all the more precious for being uncultivated and wild, not tame hothouse flowers but savage beauties, their grandeur innate in their bold colors and extravagant petals.


Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX. Four episodes into the second season.

I have a weakness for the police procedural, but even I have to admit that it’s not exactly the most creative or challenging of genres. It’s comfort food: a generally predictable, self-contained story tied up in an hour by a few familiar, simple characters. Not much to it. Sure, procedurals occasionally attempt some overarching threads, but those almost always feel tacked on and irrelevant. I might be fond of the detectives—effectively bonding with them is part of the point of a good procedural—but I simply have never cared about Lennie Briscoe’s meth-addict daughter on Law & Order, Catherine Willows’s strained relationship with her father on CSI, or Kate Beckett’s murdered mother on Castle. Those storylines feel too artificial, too contrived, too “We need to give Jerry Orbach something for his Emmy reel.” That’s the kind of thing that made me a bit of a purist (prone to dramatically overstating my case) when it comes to the genre.

The genius of Justified, the FX drama now in its second year, is that it takes the bones of the procedural and fleshes them out in a way that feels organic rather than manufactured, even by my dogmatic standards. The protagonist is a deputy U.S. marshal working a variety of cases in eastern Kentucky—capturing fugitives, transporting prisoners, guarding judges, handling assets seized by the federal government—so it is, undoubtedly, a procedural, just like its lesser marshal-centric siblings In Plain Sight and Chase. Yet Justified transcends the genre, elegantly knitting together character threads and an overarching plot with the single-episode storylines. Sometimes those one-off stories—which are often beautifully constructed in and of themselves—comment on the larger action and sometimes directly affect it (and it’s not always easy to distinguish which is which at the outset), but the result is a procedural-that’s-not-a-procedural—or perhaps simply a procedural that has expanded my notion of what a procedural can be.