First Person Singular is a “dramatic reading series” that grew out of a book store employee’s frustration with the standard format of book readings by authors. Works are read by actors, rather than authors, which hopefully allows for a more entertaining, and thus enlightening, approach to writing.
Tonight I saw Mary Baird reading as Pauline Kael. It was a mostly chronological tour through some of Kael’s highlights: West Side Story, The Graduate, Nashville, “Trash, Art and the Movies”. Baird’s readings were good enough, although I could hear Kael’s actual voice in my head (she was not one of the boring ones at readings). The selections were a bit oddly chosen … a few words about Marlon Brando but nothing from her great essay on Cary Grant, plenty of Robert Altman but only a brief mention of the Bonnie and Clyde review that solidified her reputation (and nothing of Last Tango in Paris). When introducing the play, Joe Christiano (who adapted Kael’s writing) noted the conversational tone in her work, and indeed, Baird’s various readings were easy on the ears. There was a section that portrayed an interview with Kael, which was a way to work in some of her famous one-liners.
It was something an acolyte like myself could appreciate (I found myself quoting lines silently as Baird read them), but there was something insubstantial about it all. It was hard to understand why people might still be interested in Kael 20+ years after she quit writing, and while the references to old movies charmed the mostly middle-aged-and-over audience, who nodded nostalgically, they did nothing to advance the possibility that Kael might still seem vital to some current readers.
Still, it was a nice blast of Kael, unadulterated, and the lack of big production values was appropriately intimate. Having said that, I’d note that “unadulterated” doesn’t mean “unedited” … Christiano had to decide what to put in the play, and thus was the one charged with creating a version of Pauline Kael for the audience.