Your Schwartz Is Bigger

Morrie and Mitch figure it out.

One of the most evil and satisfying sensations known to man is the anticipation of contempt. It's a feeling so powerful and pervasive that an author once suggested naming it. He didn't offer any suggestions, whoever he was, so I'll posit one: "anticitempt."

I was full of anticitempt on my way to see Tuesdays with Morrie, as anybody with even a passing understanding of writing, writers, and finances can surely understand. Tuesdays with Morrie, the book that spawned the play (and a made-for-TV movie, courtesy of Harpo), is loathed by writers around the world. And with good reason: in writing Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom committed the Three Mortal Sins of Literature.

Mortal Sin 1: In Which You Transition Out of The Journalism Biz and Can Still Manage to Feed Yourself. Mitch Albom was a very successful sportswriter with a string of New York Times best-sellers to his name, and he was a frequent talking head on sports shows. Maybe he still is. I don't watch sports. In Tuesdays with Morrie, Albom stumbled upon subject matter with amazing trans-demographic appeal, and found himself suddenly free from constant catering to the testosterone-and-Bud crowd. Now, he could cater to their wives. Journos who spend their lives rehashing the same 400-word story would sell their spleens for that kind of break.

Mortal Sin 2: In Which You Transition Out of The Journalism Biz to Peddle the Kind of Sentimental Fluff That The Journalists You Left Behind Are 100% Certain They Could Pull Out of Their Asses. Tuesdays with Morrie is so fluffy — just like its follow-up, The Five People You Meet In Heaven, and its follow-up, One More Day. The book is filled with sentiments like "love each other or perish" and "money is not a substitute for tenderness." Which is to say, it tells you lots of things you already know. This is why Oprah liked it. The only thing she hates more than a surprise is her thyroid.

Mortal Sin 3: In Which Committing Previously Mentioned Sins Makes You The Richest Person You Know. Mitch's dirty deeds have made him obscenely rich, and I hate the fucker for it.

Mitch's departure from sports was spurred by the sudden appearance of his old sociology professor, Morrie Schwartz, on Ted Koppel's Nightline. Schwartz had been Albom's favorite professor at Brandeis University, but they hadn't seen each other since Albom's graduation, 16 years earlier. When Schwartz appeared on television, he was suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease.

Worried about his old teacher, Albom went to see him and ultimately wrote Tuesdays to help Schwartz with his medical expenses. In the process, Albom learned about grace, mortality, kindness, and love. I just threw up in my mouth.

Naturally, Tuesdays was a monster hit — within a year of hitting the shelves, it was its own cottage industry. Apart from the movie and the play under discussion, I'm pretty sure I saw a Tuesdays calendar in somebody's bathroom that meted out Morrie's wisdom by the day. This is a swell idea. Nothing gets the bowels moving like a reminder that "Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live."

So — the play. Both my date and I were filled with anticitempt on the ride to the theater, and in the play's first minutes we felt very near to satisfaction. Albom had appeared and was explaining himself to the audience; an almost universally deplorable technique that usually serves no purpose but to remind you that you're in a theater, watching actors pretend to be people they're not. The actor pretending to be Mitch Albom was a guy named Jim Ballard, and he was all wrong. I'm a Ballard fan, but his introduction was so mawkish, so used-car-salesman faux sincere, that you half expected him to announce his candidacy for president.

Imagine our surprise, then, when Tuesdays with Morrie suddenly turned into a sweet, engaging, unpretentious, and heartwarming little show.

Oh, goddammit. Some things are hard to say. "Honey — I've got the crabs" is one of them, but it's nowhere near as bad as "Tuesdays with Morrie rocks!" But Tuesdays does rock, and we're just going to have to deal with it.

Of course, it won't scramble your paradigm or give you an out-of-body experience. It won't challenge you or scare you or make you realize that everything you've ever believed is wrong. It's not that kind of show. Tuesdays with Morrie is mostly a pleasurable evening at the theater because of careful professionalism — ordinary theatrical competence done right. It's only in a few powerful moments that it provides the real frisson of good drama, and those have to do with something else. Call it "soul."

Tuesdays is quick to bring us up to the moment of Albom's reunion with his old professor. In just a handful of minutes, we see Albom as a young jazz pianist, encouraged by Morrie to pursue a career in music (this is where Jim Ballard's portrayal grows a pair; throughout the play's 90-ish minutes, he never missteps again). Then we see Albom 16 years later, a terminally harried sports journalist with a billion deadlines, a cell phone that won't shut up, and no sense of humor. He's worn out — the archetypal sleepless success.

Enter Morrie, frailer than before. He and Albom begin spending their Tuesdays together in Morrie's home office — a huge, abstract set that looks like an outsized library with a tree in the corner. The set is all tall, multi-colored wooden bookcases and multi-colored hard-wood floors. The set is so large, so subconsciously mythic, that it feels more like a temple than anything else; a place where the accumulated wisdom of the world is bigger than the men who seek it. The temple vibe is appropriate, since the play, like the book, means to act as the passing of sacred knowledge from one generation to the next. Whether this occurs or not depends on whether you think "If you don't like the culture, make your own" is a profound statement.

Caldwell's production is so resolutely professional, from the lights to the set to the sound to the pacing, that you're prepped for greatness early on, and feeling not too critical when it arrives. Peter Haig's take on Morrie Schwartz is so full of life, even in death, that you'd take him seriously if he were reciting Anton Szandor LaVey instead of Mitch Albom. But mostly, what profundity there is comes from Morrie being right. We can bitch that love and compassion and grace are such tired buzzwords that they've lost their dramatic traction, but we'd be wrong. The point might be obvious, but let's chuck it out there anyway: Love doesn't get tired until it's realized, and that hasn't happened yet.

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