Etgar Keret and Gary Shteyngart love each other.
That’s what I learned last Thursday night’s installment of Selected Shorts at Symphony Space, where famous actors read the work of the two authors, as attentive audience packed the room.
The evening began with our host, BD Wong of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit fame, introducing the readers and their “delicious” stories of the evening. He then invited the authors on stage; two slightly shabby (like a little shabby) men who happen to be two of the most creative minds in literature. Shteyngart was given 30 seconds to describe himself and his work in which he said, “I’m a writer. I write books.” then explained that he sometimes also writes long essays about being Russian and an immigrant. Keret, was then given three words to describe his own collected works, and they were, “Yearning, burning, hemorrhoids”. Then he went on to explain the story we were about to hear, “Glittery Eyes”, inspired by young Etgar who wanted something so, so bad but didn’t know what it was. He just wanted it more than anyone else.
Then Parker Posey (of Christopher Guest films you know and love, House of Yes, Louie, and many-other-films fame) walked on stage, glowing even from afar. She read Keret’s story of a young girl so obsessed with glitter she dressed up as a fairy godmother and threw glitter on friends then wished very hard for glittery eyes like that dirty boy in kindergarten had.
Shteyngart’s first story, “Sixty-Nine Cents”, which Shteyngart introduced by explaining that, in researching for it, he’d eaten 400 McDonald’s hamburgers and “developed an ass type thing,” was next. The essay tells the story of his early teenage self, lover of McDonald’s halo of glory and tormented by his parents’ Russianness and insistence to do it their way (like eating homemade hard-boiled eggs at a McDonald’s in Georgia). Continuing the parade of stars, Alex Karpovsky (Ray on Girls) walked on stage and told the story, swallowing words just a little but delivering Shteyngart parent imitations to a T (“Okht Hyzer” for “Oh, hi there!”). I wondered if this was familiar to him, Karpovsky’s parents, too, Russian immigrants (and at least according to my reading) stayed tied to their Russian heritage even after they moved to the US.
Between the two acts, Wong picked out questions that people had sent via twitter and facebook and blogging, casting most aside (“no, I don’t like this one”). These included a question about first impressions (it seems they liked each other), how much of their work is autobiographical (some) and how many edits do they do (a lot). Throughout, we also discovered they’d body-searched each other (Keret, “we didn’t find anything but it was fun”) and that they are, in fact, each other’s doppelgangers. When asked who they’d have over for dinner, dead or alive, Keret said that he would invite Shteyngart and “I would buy you a few 69 cent burgers”, to which Shteyngart responded that he, too, would invite Keret and that “I would take you Wendy’s”.
After a brief intermission, Wong and Keret came on stage, with Keret explaining that “What Animal Are You?” happened after a German television crew filmed him at his home making coffee and drinking the coffee and making a call and pretending to write. As it happens, he couldn’t pretend to write and was made, instead, to actually write something on the spot, two weeks later scrapping what he’d done during filming save for the very first sentence. That brought out Willem Dafoe onto the stage, glasses in hand, reading the story of a writer whose son knows exactly when to hug for the camera and about whores who play the What Animal Are You? game and about a songbird which flew in from abroad. Dafoe was warm and personal; we were in conversation, he and us, the conversation consisting of Keret’s masterful story.
Finally, Shteyngart came out to explain the last story of the evening, “The Mother Tongue Between Two Slices of Rye”, about a “small, furry boy from the Soviet Union”. He also explained that he’d, at some point, decided to outsource his writing to India, finding a writer who’d perfected the whiny Jewish male voice and commissioning him to write all of his books. This brought out Denis O’Hare, wearing mustard yellow pants, simply because he is Denis O’Hare and thus can do anything. He delivered Shteyngart’s story of one kid’s relationship with his native Russian, a childhood friend but a foe none-the-less, with perfect rhythm and perfect drama. It was a long one, too, he must have been up there for 20 or 30 minutes. But he did it with ease and aplomb, capping off a wonderful evening on the Upper West Side.
(All photos by Rahav Segev)