Why do jokes make us laugh? Deep thinkers have wagered various guesses on the magic ingredient. Is it sex (Freud)? Is it superiority/aggression (Hobbes)? Is it incongruity (Pascal)? Maybe it’s all three. I fondly imagine the evolution of the joke to be a story of progress, with filth and nastiness gradually giving way to the intellectual beauties of pure absurdity, as in this observation by Lily Tomlin: “When I was young I always wanted to be somebody. Now I wish I had been more specific.” Yet, of all the jokes in my book, the one that gets the biggest laughs is “Hear about the bulimic stag party? The cake came out of a girl.” —Jim Holt’s Stop Me If You’ve Heard This will be published by W. W. Norton in July.
The London Stage
For the past six years, artistic director Michael Grandage has presided over respected hits—including Broadway transfers Frost/Nixon and a chilling revival of Cabaret—at the small but high-voltage Donmar Warehouse (250 seats) in Covent Garden. Starting in September, he will be producing, at the larger Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End, a yearlong series of shows with great actors, by great playwrights: Kenneth Branagh having a midlife crisis in Chekhov’s Ivanov, Derek Jacobi glowering as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Judi Dench playing Mishima’s Madame de Sade, and Jude Law as Hamlet. It’s a mark of actors’ universal respect for Grandage that the celebrities also respect his budget.
Q: Why is everyone in your company, stars included, paid the same wage?
Grandage: Our success at the Donmar is sometimes depressing because so many people can’t get in. The whole point of what we’re doing at Wyndham’s is to have more seats but to keep prices low so that people can have access to theater of this quality.
Q: What’s best about London theater right now?
Grandage: The diversity, the massive turnover of work, the number of surprises. The theatrical landscape can change completely in just a few weeks, and change it always does. You can come here for a week and see nine plays, all very different.
Q: Is there any constant?
Grandage: We do love celebrating language, whether it’s the language of 400 years ago or of today, whether it’s extravagant, like Shakespeare’s, or almost forensic, like Enid Bagnold’s in The Chalk Garden [at the Donmar June 5 to August 2]. A play can deal with a serious subject and still be a good night out. And so can a musical—I saw a workshop of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Marguerite and it seemed potentially very exciting.
Q: Where to go for pre- or post-theater dinner and drinks? And where to stay?
Grandage: I recommend the Covent Garden Hotel and its newer sister, Haymarket Hotel. Also, the bar at the Covent Garden is great for spotting actors. The Wolseley and St. Alban are more recently fashionable restaurants by the Ivy team, but I still love the Ivy, and it’s having a renaissance: The footballers are moving out and the show-business people are coming back.
Shows To See This Season
God of Carnage
Opened in March
The marriages of two highly cultured couples shatter amusingly in Yasmina Reza’s satire.
Very classy: Ralph Fiennes, Janet McTeer, Tamsin Greig, and Ken Stott.
“Droll, wicked,” said Le Figaro. “An ideal entertainment machine.”
The Old Vic
Opens on May 7
My Fair Lady sans music and romance. Guttersnipe is transformed into a high-class woman. But will she be grateful?
Tim Pigott-Smith is an unusually troubled Henry Higgins opposite lovely newcomer Michelle Dockery.
“The perfect comedy of ideas. I could have watched all night.” —The Daily Telegraph
Gone With the Wind
New London Theatre
Opened in April
Atlanta burns, Scarlett smolders, Rhett smirks, everybody sings Margaret Martin’s score.
Jill Paice plays the southern belle, Darius Danesh the man she hates to love.
The real star is director Trevor Nunn; if anyone can tame this behemoth, it’s he.
Opens on May 15
Did the betrayed wife commit suicide, or was it murder? With Ibsen, always a tricky question.
Gorgeous, magnetic Helen McCrory is the dangerous Rebecca West.
Adulterous longing, guilt, blood washing away blood: a heady brew to continue the West End’s love affair with Ibsen.
The Cinema Haymarket
Opened in February
Noël Coward’s tale of stiff-upper-lipped married lovers in 1930s England.
Kneehigh Theatre’s version has songs, films, a balloon dance—and cucumber sandwiches during the interval.
A total theater experience—giggly, cozy, poignant. The Independent described it as heaving with “passion and wild music-hall exuberance.”
Never So Good
National Theatre, Lyttelton
Opened in March
Sex, crime, and politics. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told Britain in 1957, “You’ve never had it so good.” His wife thought otherwise.
Jeremy Irons plays the grandee cuckolded by Anna Chancellor with a political rival.
Howard Brenton’s look at the Profumo years should rattle a few skeletons.
Living in Lautner
He was tough as nails and irascible, but John Lautner was always an architect’s architect. Mentored by Frank Lloyd Wright (who called him “the world’s second greatest” in their profession), Lautner spent his last five decades forging an utterly unique aesthetic in Los Angeles, where this summer the legendary maverick gets his first full retrospective, at UCLA’s Hammer Museum.
Whether Lautner was building homes for Bob Hope, swimming pools for Miles Davis, atomic-age restaurants, or institutional buildings, no two projects were alike. He based his designs on the particular site, creating an earthy, organic feel; trees seemed to grow through walls and water would flow from outside in. “There’s definitely a masculine quality to his homes,” says screenwriter Mitch Glazer, who shares a 6,000-square-foot Lautner house with his wife, actress Kelly Lynch. “But he always balanced that with a lot of rounded, feminine shapes. So it’s strong, but it’s gorgeous.”
Lautner also pushed the engineering envelope whenever he could. He put living rooms on turntables to take advantage of shifting light, placed floor-to-ceiling glass walls on tracks so they could open at the push of a button, and most famously perched a circular home on a concrete pillar for his Chemosphere, which can be reached only by funicular and is now owned by publisher Benedikt Taschen.
It’s the wow factor that owners get the biggest kick out of. Hollywood business manager John McIlwee, who restored Lautner’s 1962 Garcia House, says he usually gets the same reaction from visitors. “Shock and awe,” he says, “is the only way I can describe it.”