Joy Ride: A book review by Bob Morris

Joy RideJoy Ride: Show People and Their Shows
John Lahr
W.W., Norton & Company (2015)

For those who love the theater, here is a magic carpet on which to take a joy ride of their own.

I have previously read all of John Lahr’s profiles and reviews for The New Yorker and am delighted to have so many of them assembled in a single volume. My second reading indicates that most of them have retained their liveliness. With regard to the book’s title, Caryn James addresses it in her own review for The New York Times: “To John Lahr, joy in the theater is as much about artistic ambition and intellectual rigor as it is about simple happiness. The word infuses Joy Ride…He finds deep cultural resonance in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, about blues musicians in the 1940s, because ‘it teaches through joy, not through reason.’ The Broadway director Susan Stroman (The Producers), whose personal sorrows include the death of her husband, says, ‘Tapping into joy – it saves you.’ And of Ingmar Bergman, whom he visited at home on the island of Faro, Lahr finds ‘another kind of joy’ in ‘the audacity of Bergman’s camera, in the vigor of his argument.’ The word morphs as it meets its subjects.” I noted more than a dozen other inclusions of joy. I share James’s regret that he did not include actors among his subjects his Joy Ride, notably his interview of Helen Mirren and his profile of Sean Penn.

Lahr’s skills as a journalist share much in common with those of a New Yorker colleague, Lillian Ross. Both are astute observers, keen listeners, and bring to life their interactions with those of interest to them. For Ross, as indicated in recently published Reporting Always: Writings from the New Yorker, they would include (in alpha order) Edward Albee, Julie Andrews, Coco Chanel, Charlie Chaplin, Clint Eastwood, Federico Fellini, Ernest Hemingway, Gayle King, Willie Mays, Al Pacino, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench (together to help promote their film, Ladies in Lavender, at the Tribeca Film Festival), and Robin Williams.

Whereas Ross describes them in terms with which her readers can associate, Lahr’s approach focuses on the “show people & their shows” as both human beings (for better or worse) and incomparable artists. As he explains, his aim in Joy Ride ” is to bring the theatergoers up close and personal with the artists and their processes, with the plays and playwrights, with what they seek to express, and how they express it.” In addition to Bergman, Stroman, and Wilson, they include (again in alpha order) Tony Kushner, David Mamet, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard, and Mike Nichols. He also shares his thoughts about productions of five of Shakespeare’s plays as well as more recent works that include Private Lives, Sweeney Todd, Oklahoma, The Rose Tattoo, and Carousel.

I am deeply grateful to John Lahr for providing what I view as a magic carpet on which I have been able to take a joy ride of my own. I view this book as a precious gift and have waited until this day to thank him for it.

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