Archive for April, 2009

Theater Review: Pretty Theft by Adam Szymkowicz

Monday, April 27th, 2009

I’m not one of those critics who like to wail about the decline of innovative theater in New York. Sure, things are tough for arts organizations of all kinds and certainly for independent theater groups, and you have to be especially tough to make it in our beloved Big Wormy Apple. But that’s always been true. From where I sit — and I sit in a lot of hard, cramped seats — the pool of talent here is deep, wide, and well-nourished. The wonder is that so many extremely talented people do so much so well for so little reward.

To go with its jigsaw-puzzle structure and precision dialogue, Adam Szymkowicz’s fine psychological comedy-drama Pretty Theft has pathos, sharp humor, a dash of horror, dancing, and many scene changes. It’s the kind of play that demands an exceptional production, and that’s just what it gets at the Access Theatre on lower Broadway. In her first full-fledged directing job for the Flux Theatre Ensemble, Angela Astle maneuvers Szymkowicz’s expertly drawn characters and their incisive, insightful scenes with the finesse of a chess grandmaster.

As the audience files in, ballerinas are warming up in a dance studio crafted from a couple of rails, a mirrored board, a lot of space, and a lot of mauve. The dancers eventually take on multiple functions: interpretive spirits, figures of beauty and gladness, a Greek chorus. But at the start they quickly make way for what seems a graceless story. Shy Allegra (the splendid Marnie Schulenburg), just out of high school and headed for Dartmouth, is persuaded by her voluble, desperately flirtatious schoolmate Suzy (the exquisitely expressive Maria Portman Kelly) to join her in a summer job as a caregiver at a group home for troubled adults. Here Allegra bonds with Joe, a formerly high-functioning autistic man who’s been stashed in the home after the death of his doting father.

As in classic fairy tales, no one here has functional parents. Allegra’s father is dying in the hospital while her mother sits at home staring at the TV, resentful and withdrawn. It’s no wonder she suffers from the stereotypical teenage ailment of roadkill-low self-esteem, and to makes matters worse, her oafish boyfriend (an effective and funny Zach Robidas) is primed to dump her.

Joe responds to Allegra as to no other member of the staff, but their fractured friendship is no occasion for a heartwarming tale of personal growth and lessons sweetly learned; Szymkowicz is far too perceptive and subtle for such after-school-special tripe. When Allegra’s supervisor at the home calls her a natural — “Are you sure you’ve never done this before?” — the phoniness of the adult world is made plain to her; we feel her disillusionment at discovering the emptiness at the heart of things.

Thanks to the film Rain Man and various books, the autistic savant has become a fixture in popular culture. He’s an easy tragic figure because he shares so much with us “normals” yet can’t be one of us. But Szymkowicz doesn’t use Joe (ably portrayed by Brian Pracht) as a disposable needle for injecting self-awareness lessons into our heroine. Joe is a solid character, even a tragic figure in his own right. Just like Allegra and Suzy, he’s insecure and fragile, and lacks useful parental figures. Just like them, he’s treated unfairly by a world that professes to care but doesn’t understand him. And just like them he makes us laugh at unexpected moments.

While Joe’s fate darkens, the girls hit the road and fall victim to Marco, an icily charismatic thief who comes to their “rescue” when the road trip sours. Yet we’re never more than a step away from the light. Not the light of redemption, exactly, but the light that emanates from the uncomplicated power of beauty. Anything pretty, Marco philosophizes creepily, must be “wrong.” But in the end a wiser Allegra insists, albeit in a small voice, that it’s not so.

There’s a little Jack Nicholson danger in Todd d’Amour’s Marco. For the better part of the play’s 90-plus edgy minutes he’s making slithery time with a small-town waitress in a side plot that runs its own course, then converges with the main line with a click that suddenly seems inevitable. The technical sureness of Heather Cohn’s set pays big dividends, as the ballet barres become the coffee shop counter, a bed-sized platform skilfully portrays several different rooms, and cubes outfitted with handy cloth pouches and that clever mirrored platform do most of the rest of the scenery work. The lighting (Andy Fritsch) and sound (Kevin Fuller) are equally effective in creating the shifting locations and moods: a lunatic asylum, a repair shop, Marco’s date-rape lair, a dream sequence that’s a small tour-de-force.

So the play is a good deal more than the riff on theft promised by the title. Robbed of his livelihood, Joe fills his empty spaces by swiping supplies and toting them around in a box. Suzy purloins her mother’s car, her friend’s boyfriend, and entire displays of beauty supplies. Marco claims to steal for a living, though what he actually takes from people turns out to be something of a surprise. But everything taken is also needed, even if some needs are evil. Szymkowicz’s brilliant stroke is to paint the evil that men do right into the pretty rainbow of yearning that defines humanity. And all with a twinkle, a laugh, a pirouette, and a shiver.

Pretty Theft is presented by the Flux Theatre and runs through May 17 at the Access Theater Gallery, 380 Broadway.

Signs o’ Spring in New York City

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Daffodils, of course. (These are in Madison Square Park.)

From Signs o' Spring

A robin, of course. (Prospect Park.)

From Signs o' Spring

And it certainly wouldn’t be spring without a game of Flags ‘n’ Pigeons. (Ah, that brings me back…)

From Signs o' Spring

A Consort of Viols, a Bevy of Blooming Trees, and a Living Room Choir

Monday, April 20th, 2009

Saturday we visited Wave Hill, a gorgeous public garden and cultural center near the Hudson River in Riverdale, The Bronx.

Wave Hill House

Flowering trees were just starting to bloom and the air was full of scents. It’s a sublimely beautiful place in spring.

Wave Hill

Then yesterday night I experienced a musical equivalent. I’d seen the viol quartet Parthenia and its music and poetry programs before, but this time they were in a proper concert hall, the Dweck Auditorium at the Brooklyn Public Library with its warm acoustics. Viol The audience was enraptured by the tones of the viols, by the actor Paul Hecht reading poems by Donne and Shakespeare, and by the voice of mezzo-soprano soloist Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, better known as a member of Anonymous 4.

Mr. Hecht’s readings made me want to go back to college and major in English all over again, but this time with him by my side to read all those poems aloud. Hearing great poetry in the trained, sonorous voice of an intelligent (and funny) stage actor gives one a whole new appreciation of the works.

Meanwhile, thanks partly to Parthenia, I’ve contracted a case of viol envy — I’d like to learn to play one of those ancient things. The viols are a family of fretted stringed instruments that predate the “modern” violin, viola, cello, and double bass. The sound is softer, less like a human voice heard through the air and more like what I imagine a mother’s voice sounds like to a fetus in the womb, soothing and humming.

They played works by Dowland, Byrd, and other composers roughly contemporary with Donne and Shakespeare. The second half of the program was all about aging and dying. Yet I left the concert walking very slowly and calmly, as if I were balancing a large object on my head, not wishing to tilt in any direction or elevate my heartrate past meditation speed.

Luckily I arrived home to a rehearsal of angelic voices preparing for my friend Meg Braun‘s CD release concert. With Amy Soucy and Elisa Peimer harmonizing, the three sounded like a whole choir in the living room. That’s the magic of well-crafted counterpoint: it makes the brain fill in parts that aren’t there.

But before Meg’s concert, in which I am also playing, Elisa and I will be back at Wave Hill. We’re getting married there in less than two weeks. Holy crap.

Viol photo: Copyright © 2000–2009 The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Theater Review: Caitlin and the Swan

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

theater

The Management has become known for dark comedies with an element of magic realism, and Dorothy Fortenberry’s Caitlin and the Swan (at UNDER St. Marks through May 2) is no exception. Director Joshua Conkel illuminates the curious psychological world of Fortenberry’s imagination, in which the animalistic metaphors of women’s sex lives become flesh and blood. Led by her worldly friends and her own exploratory spirit, naïve Caitlin (the excellent Marguerite French) plumbs the mysteries of fulfillment with charm, if little subtlety. (This isn’t a subtle play.) Dancer Elliott T. Reiland scores as the fantastical animals, both graceful and gruff, and Jake Aron strikes a delicate balance between innocence and abandon as Bastian, a cerebral high schooler who becomes Caitlin’s confidante. Rigid questionnaires and tests play the foil to the forces of imagination — Bastian prepares for the SATs, while the women mock a sociology survey about “work-life balance.” Uneven acting and visible opening-night jitters made Thursday’s show less than all it could have been, but the performances in this enjoyable one-act should cohere to match the pointed fun of its conceits.

Top Six Reasons I’m Resisting Twitter

Monday, April 13th, 2009

If Twitter is the new way people are finding out about things, I guess I’m going to have to start doing it eventually. But so far I’m resisting, and here’s why.

6. I already have to “hide” three quarters of my Facebook friends because I don’t have time to read their announcements of “I’m off to the Post Office” and “I’m making lentil soup tonight.”

5. Speaking of food, I don’t know if I can afford another mouth to feed. With Facebook, two Myspace pages, a professional website, professional blog, personal blog, band websites, rehearsals, hustling for work, etc., etc. — not to mention those holdovers from a primitive era, actually working and having a social life — it’s hard to swallow the idea of hooking up yet another needy pipeline I must pump full of something on a regular basis.

4. Unless I’m talking about birds, I refuse to do anything requiring me to use the word “tweet.”

3. I like to maintain an inflated sense of my own importance, so I’m worried that no matter how many (or few) people might follow me on Twitter, it will never be enough.

2. Just to be plain ornery.

And the Number One reason I’m resisting Twitter…

1. Look outside — it’s a beautiful day!

No Kidding

Monday, April 13th, 2009

Photobucket

Book Review: Wondrak and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig, Translated by Anthea Bell

Saturday, April 11th, 2009

Some literature — Shakespeare, Dickinson, Faulkner — feels timeless, as if retrofitted with a few new surface details it could have been written yesterday and not decades or centuries ago. Wondrak and Other Stories, by the early 20th century Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, is of another sort: though it deals with eternal themes — war and peace, the state vs. the individual — it reads, today, as if blanketed in a layer of naiveté.

By that I don't mean ignorance of the world; quite the opposite. It is an un-modern lack of irony that marks these stories as unlike those of most modern writers. In "In the Snow" ("Im Schnee"), the brief first story in this collection of three, the very youthful Zweig, a non-observant Jew, tells of a group of medieval Jewish families who flee their village ahead of what would centuries later be called a pogrom. But these Jews are not well-rounded characters; rather they are almost symbolically simple avatars of persecution and gloom. Even singing a celebratory Chanukah song, "the singing echoes like a hopeless lament, and is blown away on the wind." Even before we learn their fate, Zweig has let us know that for these Jews there can be no redemption – not even, it seems, in their own hearts.

"In the Snow" is a very early work; the mature Zweig was capable of much more nuance. Even so, "Compulsion" ("Der Zwang"), the long story at the center of the collection, has a discomfiting up-front quality, as if we're being compelled to press our faces against the glass and experience the story literally rather than reclining to watch the show in comfort.

Ferdinand, a peace-loving artist, has fled to Switzerland with his wife Paula to avoid being drafted into the German army during World War I. Nonetheless he receives a summons to service. Though he and Paula have agreed to take a principled, intellectually rigorous stand against any such conscription, in the event he feels compelled to answer the call, much as he wants to resist. It is an almost Jamesian tale of complex psychology, not just ideas.

This was an order that would not be denied. Somehow he felt himself wavering; that unknown sensation was back. His hands began to shake. His strength faded. Cold came from somewhere, like a draught of wind blowing around him, uneasiness returned, inside him the steel clockwork of the alien will began to stir, tensing all his nerves and making its way to his joints. Instinctively he looked at his watch.

Like Hans Castorp at the end of The Magic Mountain, Ferdinand's fate is left uncertain, though we are given room to hope for both his physical and his mental survival. The final tale lacks certainty for another reason: Zweig never finished it. Wondrak is titled after a minor character, a local functionary charged with assisting the authorities in locating young men avoiding the draft. The story recounts the life of a disfigured woman, Ruzena, who is now trying to hide her only son, Karel.

It's a tale of large cruelties and small mercies. Zweig left it off with Ruzena and her son both jailed, awaiting his transport off to war. Knut Beck, an earlier editor of Zweig, suggested that perhaps the author felt the story couldn't have been published because of its subject matter and therefore didn't finish it. I think it's just as likely that he quit because he'd written himself into a corner.  Either way, again there is no irony; though certain characters may have psychological depth, what actually occurs is plainly motivated and sensible, at least within the twisted sensibility of war. We do, however, wish we knew what became of Ruzena, having dwelt with her for some 33 pages.

I suspect Pushkin Press's earlier Zweig release, Amok & Other Stories, might be a better introduction to the author. But this volume has piqued my interest in reading more from a writer who was one of the most successful of his time but is largely unknown today in the English-speaking world. I was a little disappointed to spot several typos, after finding the same publisher's edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets such a model of small-print perfection. But Pushkin's unique and rather artistic small softcover format remains appealing.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Mosher, Cleaves, Terry

Thursday, April 9th, 2009

Manda Mosher, Everything You Need

Manda Mosher's airy but sultry alto is a refreshing change from the little-girl voices that dominate pop music, and crop up a lot in today's rootsy music too. Mosher's sun-baked pop-rock doesn't fall easily into a genre either, though decades ago we could safely have simply called it "rock."

Mosher's dobro plucking and Dylanesque harmonica playing nod to the front porch, but her songs, especially in these keyboard-heavy arrangements, hark back more to 1970s arena rock (especially Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) than to anything current. The sole cover, however, is a lovely acoustic rendition of Pete Townshend's sweet, slightly precious "Blue, Red, and Grey."

Though reasonably well-crafted, Mosher's songs are a little pallid, lacking in excitement. As if trying to make up for this, producer Guy Erez has overproduced the tracks, and they are recorded on the CD crazily loud. These choices don't serve Mosher's subtle vocals well. She's not a brash Kelly Clarkson or a squeaky Taylor Swift, she's more of a smoky Christine McVie or Joni Mitchell. But this CD tries to hit you over the head with her. I suspect I'd enjoy her music more if it were in a more intimate setting.

Slaid Cleaves, Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away

Slaid Cleaves is one of those consummate songwriters whose stuff would sound great coming from almost any singer you can think of. But like Kim Richey (of whom he reminds me), his own voice, though not a powerhouse instrument, wraps perfectly around his words and melodies.

Cleaves' first new CD of original material in five years is the kind of album it's hard to write about because the music doesn't invite much analysis. It's like trying to grab hold of an object so smooth and frictionless you can't get a grip on it. Gurf Morlix, one of Americana music's great unsung producers, keeps things spare and simple, as befits the literate but straight-arrow songs.

Cleaves' stories and vignettes range from workingman's plaints, like "Tumbleweed Stew" and the Springsteen-esque "Hard to Believe," to grim ditties of war and death like "Green Mountains and Me" and the relentless, Townes-sad "Twistin'." Although there's a lot of negative imagery in the lyrics, the music has an unprepossessing, almost dancing quality even when it's slow. This makes you lean into the lyrics to see the vivid pictures. Good-looking music, this.

Jesse Terry, The Runner

Here's an expertly crafted, beautifully produced CD of poppy country-rock from a singer-songwriter with an open, engaging, emotionally powerful voice and a knack for melodies. But the lyrics take it down a peg. Cliches and sentimental storytelling are OK in songs up to a point, of course, but only if they're put together in original ways, or if they sit perfectly with the melodies in that indescribable, magical way that turns a competent song into a really good one.

These lyrics too often disappoint in that sense, even edging into cheesiness at times, as with the title track. In other songs, like "Edges" and "Ghost Town," good setups with well-conceived tunes and imagery don't lead to strong musical payoffs.

Where Terry does connect, for me, is in his acoustic ballads, where rather than forcing his way to attempted big choruses, he seems to be simply saying what he wants to say. "Noise," "A Refuge," and the exquisite "Africa" flow with complete naturalness, like songs by the Beatles, Don Henley, or Kevin So.

Theater Review (NYC): Rock of Ages

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

'80s rock, with its hair bands, codpieced lead singers, and rainbow-bright guitar heroes, was all about excess and pomp. It was hard to take seriously then; today it's experienced as gaudy kitsch. But as with all genres of pop music, catchy songs were what made bands like Journey, Poison, and Night Ranger popular in the first place, so these bands are as ripe for the Broadway treatment as popsters of any other era.

After successful runs in Los Angeles and off-Broadway, Rock of Ages has crash-landed at the Brooks Atkinson — noisy, flashy, and most of all, funny. The creators of the show smartly decided to play it entirely for laughs, and the result is an evening of pure escapist fun, exactly what a city weary of bad news needs.

The book, by Chris D'Arienzo, tells a story so self-consciously cliched it can't help bursting out of its boy-meets-girl envelope and turning on itself with in-jokes and outrageous mugging. Mitchell Jarvis, in a Jack Black-like turn, plays Lonny, a sound man at a rock club on the Sunset Strip who also functions as the narrator. theater "I wanted to explore deep and thoughtful theater," he complains late in the proceedings, but instead was hired for a show with "poop jokes and Whitesnake songs."

When aspiring rock star Drew (Constantine Maroulis), the taller, masculine member of the show's star-crossed pair, denies having referred to ingenue Sherrie (Amy Spanger) as a mere "friend," Lonny pops out of a side doorway to remind him, "Actually, you did." The show is loaded with self-reference and toilet humor; there's really nothing going on beneath the music and dancing and horsing around. But the action and the fun never stop, and they're all we need. This show is pure visceral experience. What it's about is the music.

The cast sings extremely well, and the band is kickass. This was undoubtedly the first and only time I'll ever actually enjoy hearing Poison's "Every Rose Has Its Thorn." theater Never has REO Speedwagon's "Can't Fight This Feeling" been so perfectly apropos as here, dramatizing a new-found gay love. Vocally, the show's finest musical moment is a duet by Drew and Sherrie of Damn Yankees' "Can You Take Me High Enough."

But the biggest applause was for a showstopping number built around Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot," sung by Wesley Taylor as Franz. Franz is the flouncy son of a German developer who wants to replace the Strip's trashy but vibrant clubs with sterile strip malls. Defying his humorless, fun-crushing dad, Franz represents — nothing, actually, except a breakout role for the delightful Mr. Taylor. There's no depth here. It is what it is: surface sheen, happy noise, and songs with pounding hooks that you just can't get out of your head. Need a break from it all? Hop in your Speedwagon and Journey across the river Styx to 47th Street.

Rock of Ages plays until the final countdown at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47 St., NYC.

Theater Review (NYC): Macbeth

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Patrick Stewart is a tough act to follow, but Hipgnosis isn't afraid: they've plunged into the roughened seas of the Lower East Side with one of New York's first Macbeths since Rupert Goold brought Mr. Stewart and Kate Fleetwood to our fair city for a brief reign of terror, first at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and then on Broadway.

This is also probably the first Manhattan Macbeth since another foul, bloody reign ended and a new, unusually dark-skinned thane became the hopeful leader of a violent nation. This color-neutral Macbeth, with the great Julian Rozzell in the title role, seems especially appropriate today. We tend to think of the play as being about lust for and corruption of power, about tyranny, cruelty and comeuppance, but this production seems to stress the fate of Scotland as much as it does those of its individual characters.

"I think our country sinks beneath the yoke," cries Malcolm as he and Macduff hatch their plan to take down the freshly minted tyrant; "It weeps, it bleeds; and each new day a gash / Is added to her wounds." The two vengeful warriors shout through this crucial scene — too much so — as if to pound home the message that their mission is infinitely larger than themselves.

A good Macbeth must have, at minimum, a good Macbeth. The Hipgnosis team has tapped Mr. Rozzell, a founding member of the group and an actor of great range, magnetism, and subtlety. Lanky and sinewy, he prowls and arches over the stage, which is actually a brightly lit pit like a wrestling ring. Macbeth As Macbeth battles conscience and guilt, sometimes reduced to crawling like a bug on the scuffed and bloodied white floor, the lights never dim. It's meant to suggest the broad-daylight productions of Shakespeare's time, with all atmosphere and suspense generated purely by the words and action.

Mostly, it works. The able cast is co-anchored by Elizabeth Mirarchi as a diminutive, highly focused Lady Macbeth and Richard Ugino as Banquo, both Hipgnosis regulars who shone in very different lights in The Caucasian Chalk Circle last year. Under John Castro's straightforward direction the characters march simply from scene to scene, stolidly pushing Shakespeare's inexorable story towards its fated conclusion.

The gauzy witches are a little scary and a little funny, their white wrappings vaguely resembling the nurses' outfits of the Stewart production; the banquet scene with Banquo's ghost is played partially (and I think intentionally) for laughs, a choice which ironically pays off by deepening our feeling for Macbeth's pain. Only occasionally, as in the build-up to Macbeth's downfall, when scenes fly by in quick succession, does the lack of scenery and lighting seem to strand the actors in an uncomfortable, Beckettian limbo.

This production can't help but labor in the shadow of its titanic predecessor. But, avoiding any temptation to bend Shakespeare out of shape for the sake of originality, the Hipgnosis group has realized a stirring, straight-up Macbeth. Mr. Rozzell's performance, with its youthful, blazing, and animalistic intensity, alone makes this production worth seeing, and there's a good deal more as well.

Macbeth runs through April 19th at the Flamboyan Theatre, Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center, 107 Suffolk St., NYC. Tickets at Smarttix or call 212-868-4444. Photo courtesy of David Gibbs/DARR Publicity.

Theater Review: Mrs. Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

Written in 1893, Mrs. Warren's Profession wasn't publicly staged in England until over 30 years later. Its frank (though euphemistically phrased) treatment of prostitution was the obvious reason for the play's suppression, but its truly modern subject was the newly developing role and rights of working women. It's a testament to both Shaw's brilliance, and to the slow, fitful progress of societal change, that the play still feels pretty current.

The present production by BOO-Arts at Manhattan Theatre Source does very well by Shaw. Director Kathleen O'Neill, founder and director of the company, creates a pleasing, almost earthy sense of intimacy by placing the audience on two sides of the action. Shaw's dialogue is supremely fluent and expertly whittled, but also somewhat heightened; staging the play so that we're practically embracing the cast pulls a modern American audience into the action and helps make everything seem quite natural. Ms. O'Neill has grasped both the essential characteristics and the depths of Shaw's characters: not only the pivots of the story — the middle-aged madam of the title and her independent-minded daughter Vivie — but the four class-conscious men orbiting the women.

All the roles are very well cast, though some of the British accents are more successful than others; the excellent James Dutton, who plays Vivie's young, ne'er-do-well boyfriend/boy toy, has an advantage here, being British-born. His lounging, lunging, cynical Frank Gardner is like a prancing Wodehouse fop made suddenly self-aware. Broadway veteran Joy Franz is a magnificent Mrs. Warren, commanding the stage, revealing her history to her daughter with power and grace and pathos. theater Ashton Crosby is a delightfully humorous Rev. Gardner. Joseph Francini is an effective Praed, the aesthete of the group, and David Palmer Brown has a grand time with the meatier role of Sir George Crofts, who initially appears to be a cad and blowhard but turns out to be rather more, and less.

Caralyn Kozlowski is a wonder as Vivie, completely disappearing into her complex character, biting down on emotions, then opening up just enough for us to read her precisely, controlling herself and controlling the men with the only real power she has: her determination. She makes us laugh even as she faces the serious conundrum of woman's lot.

Including intermission, the play runs two and a half hours, but it zips by. It's actually one of Shaw's shorter plays, and as such it's done more often than some; still, this is a fairly unusual opportunity to see a top-notch staging with an excellent cast in an intimate setting. Mrs. Warren's Profession runs through April 18 at Manhattan Theatre Source.

Book Review: The Midwife by Jennifer Worth

Friday, April 3rd, 2009

London's East End, the 1950s, winter. A thick yellow smog keeps the local doctors busy treating respiratory problems; elderly folks die by the hundreds. But Conchita Warren, pregnant for the 25th (yes, the 25th) time, has suffered a fall and gone into labor two months early.

The young midwife who has been providing Conchita's prenatal care receives the late-night call, and bicycles through the soupy cloud of pollution to tend to her charge. Jenny is an experienced midwife by now, but has never had to deal with a premature birth. The mother is very sick; the baby is born successfully, tiny but alive. Finally doctors arrive and order the baby transferred to hospital, but Conchita won't let go of the minute infant. No amount of pressure can pry her hand off it, and her husband, Len, takes her side.

This is but one of many dramatic episodes ("adventures" wouldn't be an inaccurate term) recounted by Jennifer Worth in her absorbing, eye-opening, wise, touching, and sometimes suspenseful memoir of life as a nurse-midwife in the poor parts of London in the postwar years. Times were tough and crime always threatened, but unlike policemen, who patrolled in pairs for "mutual protection… we nurses and midwives are always alone, on foot or bicycle. We would never be touched. So deep is the respect, the reverence, of the roughest, toughest docker for the district midwives that we can go anywhere alone, day or night, without fear."

And they had to. Jenny visits bombed-out buildings, condemned many years before but still inhabited by the dirt-poor. She encounters women who've been abused by husbands, by pimps, and by the infamous workhouses, and ravaged by illnesses ranging from rickets to eclampsia. Yet moments of amazing grace shed a different light on the human condition: a first-time father has an unexpected reaction to his new baby's suspiciously dark skin; a young boy befriends a clumsy, socially inept midwife, gallantly defending her against ridicule; Jennifer discerns the startling secret to Conchita and Len's everlasting, unconditional love. And as the young agnostic grows to respect the nuns who run the midwives' practice, she inches towards a religious revelation.

Ms. Worth's prose is only workmanlike, but all her stories are interesting, and for every episode of fascinating but technical medical reporting (I learned a lot about birthin' babies from this book), there's a recollection or reflection that achieves a kind of literary transcendence. Of Mrs. Jenkins, a ragged old woman who magically appears in the street wherever a birth is about to occur, Ms. Worth writes:

She stepped over the edge of the big tin bath and sat down in the water with delight, splashing and giggling like a little girl. She picked up the flannel and sucked the water noisily, looking up at me with smiling eyes. The room was warm because I had stoked up the fire, and a cat strolled up and looked curiously over the edge of the bath. She splashed him in the face with a giggle, and he retreated, offended. The front door banged, and she looked up sharply. "Rosie, that you? Come 'ere, girl, an' look a' yer ol' mum. It's a rare sight."

But the footsteps went upstairs, and Rosie didn't come.

The nuns themselves are among the most interesting characters: ancient crazy-like-a-fox Sister Monica Joan; bustling, foul-mouthed Sister Evangelina; saintly Sister Julienne. Worth's exact recounting of dialogue, and her detailed descriptions of scenes that were only told to her by others (and decades ago at that), feel suspiciously detailed. But if she has recreated, it all feels apt; everything in this book is vividly believable, and often gripping.  Even the appendix on cockney dialect was no exception; I began to read it dutifully but finished it wishing for more. It will surely be appreciated by any American who's tried to fight through an episode of Eastenders.

A great success in England, this book deserves just as much appreciation on the west side of the pond. Jennifer Worth's tales of a half century ago lose nothing with transplantation to modern times; society really hasn't changed all that much. And they will resonate with anyone who ever had a heart.