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Narcissus Personae.

John Lahr peers behind celebrity masks, Freud at the ready

SHOW AND TELL: NEW YORKER PROFILES

John Lahr Overlook, New York. 304 pp., $27.95 cloth.

IN A RECENT NEW Yorker profile of Ingmar Bergman, John Lahr helpfully reminds us that personality has as its root the Latin word for mask. This is more than an etymology lesson: for Lahr, the relationship of persona (the facade we construct to show to the world) to personality (our shadowy interior selves) is a lifelong fascination. And, as demonstrated throughout his career, Lahr's meteir is catching his subjects at the moment when the mask slips. His business is, to borrow from Hamlet, plucking the heart of his subjects' mysteries. Yet, unlike the vast majority of celebrity profilers, Lahr is determined to do so with reverence and grace.

Show and Tell is a hagiography of show business saints who, though worshiped, remain mysterious in their private dimensions. "The people profiled here are largely show people whom the public thinks it knows," writes Lahr in his introduction. "They have a well-worked-out social face, and so I have to listen hard to find that place in them which is not at ease, and which their art defines and releases." The 15 pieces in Show and Tell, published in the New Yorker between 1995 and 2000, presuppose show business as a striptease in which both performer and audience are engaged. Indeed, the book's title certainly teases with voyeuristic thrills.

Yet Lahr never skates across the polished surface of celebrity; his portraits, drawn from an accumulation of sharply observed detail, second-hand insight, biographical fact and (when possible) interviews, illuminate performers through their work. In an age awash in the flotsam of celebrity lives, Lahr's modus operandi is singularly refreshing (these are show-business icons, after all, who only reveal themselves fully in the masks they wear): concerned less with exposing their secret corners, Lahr is more interested in understanding how the private self and the public artist blend.

Which is not to say that Lahr doesn't develop intimate rapport with his subjects. His reputation as one of the country's preeminent theatre writers, along with the illustrious calling card of his employer, gives him extraordinary access to extraordinarily private people. In his profile of Arthur Miller, for instance, written to mark the 50th anniversary of Death of a Salesman, the playwright invites Lahr to the cabin where, in a feverish three-day eruption, Willy Loman was born. Yet getting inside the cabin is only the beginning; once there, Lahr traces the play's genesis from the first whirlwind of invention back to Miller's memories of his hopelessly hopeful salesman uncle. Through Miller's notes and remembrances, the whole chorus of sad-sack figures who were transmuted into Willy Loman come into focus. "Every masterpiece is a story of accident and accomplishment," Lahr writes. By plumbing both Miller's conscious creation and the unconscious voices that spoke through him, Lahr is able to explain the synthe sis of classical tragedy and dream logic that makes Death of a Salesman such a masterful evocation of its period. Miller later remarked that Lahr's profile was the best thing ever written about his work.

Lahr's critical bent is unabashedly, unfashionably Freudian. By and large, the artists presented in Show and Tell are narcissists or, at the least, mild eccentrics. And, by and large, Lahr traces their personal deficits to the hurts of childhood: It is the absence of familial affection that causes these show folk to so relentlessly seek the affection of the larger world. In the case of David Mamet, a cold and remote father lies at the dark heart of his plays. For actor Liev Schreiber, it is a dotty mother with a sketched-in sense of reality who inspires her son's search for his true identity in the character of Hamlet. Mike Nichols--interpreted, bizarrely, through his latest and perhaps worst film, What Planet Are You From?--emerges as a man who feels perpetually alien because of his immigrant family and an early disfigurement. In the hands of a less elegant or less compassionate biographer, such analysis might come across as over-the-counter psychobabble. In Lahr's, however, the Freudian cliches explain as much as they simplify.

Lahr certainly doesn't excuse himself from the analyst's couch. In two recent pieces, reprinted in Show and Tell, Lahr profiles the show business luminaries he knows best: his mother, who was a Ziegfeld girl, and his father, who was lionized for his role in The Wizard of Oz. Lahr's mother, seen mostly through the rosy glass of memory, emerges as a happy naif, comfortably under the spell of show business fame even at the end of her life. Bert Lahr, however, is revealed to be a more problematic figure: a brilliant comedian and intuitive performer, but almost totally unequipped to deal with the vagaries of life off stage. Taken together, the two profiles could be construed as evidence of a rather serious Oedipal complex; instead, Lahr turns them into eulogies and quiet meditations on the nature of show people.

Perhaps because of his pedigree, Lahr has an affinity for clowns and chameleons--performers who can slip their skin at will. In Frank Sinatra, the blue-eyed boy from Hoboken, he finds a paradigm of the peculiarly American ethos of self-invention. The transvestite comedian Eddie Izzard--who recalls one of Lahr's favorite muses, Dame Edna Everage--uses his incongruent appearance to heighten the Pythonesque surrealism of his routines. Wallace Shawn--like Lahr, a scion of New York glitterati--emerges as a willfully split personality: both self-effacing schlump and caustic social satirist. Even in an outre iconoclast like Roseanne, Lahr finds something of a self-invented trickster--a woman, who, to borrow again from Hamlet, is given one face by society and makes herself another.

Each of these people is hiding behind innumerable masks. Yet, Lahr suggests, there is a seductive magic in their games of hide-and-go-seek. However much they expose, they, like good show business folk, leave us always wanting more.

Peter Ritter is a 1999-2000 American Theatre Affiliated Writer, with sup port from a grant by the Jerome Foundation.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Ritter, Peter
Publication:American Theatre
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2000
Words:1008
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