Sunday, January 23, 2005

Sunday Reading

I hear there’s some weather up north, and also there’s some football going on. Well, stay inside. Do some reading.

  • The New York Times has an article that answers the much-asked question: Who came up with the typeface for the GAS FOOD (which is often an accurate description of the menu at the IHOP) signs along the interstate?

    More than a decade ago, a Federal Highway Administration study predicted that by 2005, 20 percent of American drivers would be over 65, creating a major safety problem. Age tends to diminish night vision, especially the ability to distinguish contrast, and older drivers are vulnerable to what engineers call “overglow” or “halation,” when letters lighted by headlights blur together. The government’s recommendation: Make the type on signs as much as 20 percent larger. But simply increasing the height of letters would mean much larger signs — 40 to 50 percent larger, with a resulting increase in cost as well as visual clutter.

    But a team of researchers led by Donald Meeker, a sign designer in Larchmont, N.Y., and James Montalbano, a type designer in Brooklyn, offered a different approach. They urged replacing the familiar letters of the Federal Highway Administration Standard Alphabets for Traffic Control Devices with new ones designed to accommodate older drivers.

    Devised by Mr. Meeker and Mr. Montalbano and researched by scientists at Penn State and Texas A&M, the new typeface is called Clearview, and in the world of sign engineers it is monumental. “It is the biggest change in the last 30 years of traffic control devices,” said Art Breneman, who recently retired as the chief of traffic engineering and operations at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

    Now you will be able to see much clearer that you can’t get there from here.

  • George F. Will suggests an early Frost will help the Democrats.

    Having had their fill of post-election introspection, the 447 Democratic Party luminaries who will elect their new chairman Feb. 12 surely now yearn for stronger wine and madder music. Many yearn for Howard Dean, the highly carbonated tribune of “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” Dean is fun — a scream, you might say.

    But losing is not. So the 447 should wonder whether, after John Kerry’s defeat, another liberal Northeasterner is the proper poultice for the party’s wounds. Hotline’s poll — 42 percent of the 447 responding — shows that a refugee from a red state is second behind Dean.

    Martin Frost is a political lifer eager to prolong his engagement in party affairs, which began in 1968, when, as a Georgetown University law student, he volunteered at the headquarters of Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign. Frost’s 13-term congressional career was ended in November when he was one of four Texas Democrats who were victims of the mid-decade redistricting engineered by Rep. Tom DeLay. Democrats like victims as much as they dislike DeLay, so Frost has a double claim on Democrats’ pity, which is their sincerest compliment.


    Frost wants to reverse the atrophy of many state parties that happens when national Democrats chase the chimera of winning the White House by “running the table” in the 18 to 20 states they contest. His wife is the highest-ranking female general on active Army duty, and he supported a general — Wesley Clark — for the 2004 presidential nomination. Frost thinks that if Democrats will stop talking about gun control — he talks about shooting awards he won at age 8 — and if they can sound more serious about the U.S. military’s guns, Democrats can carry some red states.

    I respect Martin Frost, and if the Democrats want to win a few votes, they could make him the DNC chair. That would probably make Ralph Nader happy, too; it would prove his point that there’s not a lot of difference between the two parties.

  • Harvey Fierstein takes over as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway. No, seriously.

    A kazoo has joined the music makers of the placid Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Minskoff Theater. From the moment it sounds its first word, Harvey Fierstein’s voice causes an entire audience to prick up its ears in the manner of a dog startled by a sharp whistle.

    Heard not so long ago issuing from the plus-size form of Edna Turnblad, the agoraphobic housewife in the musical “Hairspray,” Mr. Fierstein’s voice is one of the most distinctive in theater, belonging to the legend-making league of those of Carol Channing and Glynis Johns. And though a kazoo is what it most often brings to mind, it also variously evokes a congested saxophone, wind in a bottle and echoes from a crypt. It is, in a way, its own multicolored show. Whether it fits comfortably into the little Russian village of Anatevka, where “Fiddler” is set, is another issue.

    When David Leveaux’s production of this much-loved, much-performed 40-year-old musical of life on a Jewish shtetl first opened last February, it was notable principally for its elegant, autumnal set (by Tom Pye) and its anesthetizing blandness. In the central role of Tevye the milkman, a part created in 1964 by Zero Mostel, the usually excellent Alfred Molina seemed sad, tentative and often absent. The whole show appeared to suffer from a similar lack of engagement with its material.

    Mr. Leveaux, the fashionable London director behind the Broadway revivals of “Nine” and Tom Stoppard’s “Jumpers,” may have been aiming for a tone of lyrical lament, of a goodbye to a folkloric way of life about to disappear. But it has always been the robustness as well as the sentimentality of Jerry Bock’s and Sheldon Harnick’s songs and Joseph Stein’s book that has made “Fiddler” such an enduring favorite. Led by the somnambulistic Mr. Molina, and a bizarrely chic Randy Graff as Tevye’s wife, Golde, Mr. Leveaux’s interpretation sometimes barely had a pulse.

    That omission has been remedied to some extent by Mr. Molina’s new replacement. Even at his quietest, Mr. Fierstein, who won a Tony Award for “Hairspray,” has the presence of a waking volcano. And lest anyone think he needs drag to be big, let it be noted that he wears Tevye’s tattered trousers with a homey and winning ease. To see the gray-bearded, bright-eyed Mr. Fierstein pulling a horseless milk cart with sardonic resignation is, you may well think, to look upon the image of the Tevye of the Sholem Aleichem stories that inspired the show.

    It is Mr. Fierstein’s greatest asset as a performer, that unmistakable voice, that perversely shatters this illusion. Theatergoers who saw – or more to the point heard – this actor in “Hairspray” will require at least 10 minutes to banish echoes of Edna. But even audience members unfamiliar with Mr. Fierstein may find him a slightly jarring presence.

    Tevye must to some degree be an everyman, albeit in exaggerated, crowd-pleasing form. And Mr. Fierstein, bless him, shakes off any semblance of ordinariness as soon as he opens his mouth. Every phrase he speaks or sings, as he shifts uncannily among registers, becomes an event. And the effect is rather as if Ms. Channing were playing one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s simple, all-American heroines in “Oklahoma!” or “Carousel.”

    I’ve seen everyone from Topol (in London in 1971) to Ernie Sabella (at the University of Miami in 1972) as Tevye, and I’d love to see this one, too.

  • I’m not sure who I want to see win the championship games today – all I know is that these games are usually a lot more interesting than the Super Bowl. Let the hype begin. And while the Northeast US digs out from the blizzard, I have several diversions: I taped The O.C. and CSI from Thursday, there are a couple of good books I’m in the middle of reading, there’s some writing to do, the crossword to solve, and the annual Concours d’Elegance car show on the Miracle Mile in Coral Gables. Busy day, busy day.