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Monday, November 17, 2003 - Page updated at 12:43 P.M.

Best books 2003: These performing-arts books deserve a round of applause

Editor's note: It's that time of year again, when publishers vie for your gift-giving dollars. Last week, we brought you notable books on classical music; the week before, on rock 'n' roll. Next week, it'll be visual-arts books, and we'll keep the lists coming through Nov. 30.

By Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic

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This year has not been the most bountiful for must-read performing-arts books. There are a smattering of new tomes, however, that deserve consideration as holiday gifts for friends and relations — or as candidates for your own lively arts bookshelf.

For the stagestruck biography hound

"Design for Living" by Margot Peters ( Knopf; $30) takes a fond backstage look at Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the married acting duo who ruled Broadway from the 1920s into the '40s. He was dashing, she was glamorous. And à deux, they knew everyone who was anyone, charmed them all, and made a smashing team in such White Way hits as "The Guardsman," "Design for Living" (penned by close pal Noël Coward) and "Idiot's Delight."

Was their childless, sexually ambivalent marriage ever consummated? It's a question Peters (a graceful biographer of the Barrymore clan and Charlotte Brontë as well), probes lightly but admits she can't answer. But she ably depicts their "double life" in glittering Manhattan, and at Ten Chimneys, their beloved country home in Genesee Depot, Wis. And Peters communicates the mutual affection and respect (as well as shared theatrical perfectionism) that made the Lunt-Fontanne union so close, so enduring.

"Eleonora Duse: A Biography" by Helen Sheehy (Knopf; $32.50) examines an earlier matinee idol, an Italian actress of profound magnetism and prescient onstage naturalness.

The revered Duse inspired the slang term "doozy." And hers is a fascinating saga, starting with her impoverished life as a child actress in Italy. Sheehy chronicles the story thoroughly: Duse's acting triumphs, turbulent love affairs, intense attachments to such fellow cultural icons as poet Gabriele D'Annunzio and dancer Isadora Duncan.

Scant film footage of Duse survives. And as one enthusiast lamented, "No future generation can know what it is we admire in the art of Eleonora Duse ... Her art lives wholly within, a thing of the spirit." Nonetheless, Sheehy's book gives us a palpable sense of the celebrated thespian's magical effect on her audiences and colleagues.

For the creative wannabe

"The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life" by Twyla Tharp (Simon & Schuster; $25) is, yup, yet another self-help tome for aspiring creators.

But Tharp, a major modern choreographer-director (her musical "Movin' Out" comes to the Paramount Theatre next June) knows whereof she speaks. And there's nothing simplistic or fuzzy-minded in her down-to-earth advice on gaining skills and finding inspiration, or in the useful exercises she offers to anyone who longs to think out of the box — from engineers and corporate types to composers and writers.

"Creativity is not just for artists," Tharp reminds you. She also stresses, "Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is the result of good work habits. That's it in a nutshell."

For a budding dancer

"Winter Season: A Dancer's Journal" by Toni Bentley (University Press of Florida; $21.95), a chronicle of a season that Bentley, then 22, spent dancing with the New York City Ballet, was first published in 1982.

Now this observant glimpse into the professional dance world has been reissued, with a new preface by Bentley. A first-hand account of the harsh challenges and fleeting rewards of an exacting art form, the book was deservedly praised by critics and by George Balanchine (lionized choreographer-director of NYCB) for its freshness, candor and eloquence. And it's still an enlightening read.

For Oscar mavens

"75 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards" by Robert Osborne (Abbeville Press; $75) may be the ultimate bible for those who can't get enough Oscar stats and lore.

The hefty volume gives year-by-year coverage of every nomination and award given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (from 1927 to 2002). And it contains loads of star quotes, well-annotated photographs, and annual summations of Oscar highlights written by Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies.

Open it at random, and it may get you wondering about the rhyme and reason behind who gets that coveted gold statuette. For instance: Did "The Greatest Show on Earth" really deserve to beat out "High Noon" for a best-picture Oscar? And what about "Gigi" trouncing "Auntie Mame"? Recount!

For 'I Love Lucy' lovers

"Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball" by Stefan Kanfer (Knopf; $25.95) scrutinizes the flame-haired, putty-faced comedienne more closely than all those recent TV bio-films on her have.

Kanfer (also a biographer of Groucho Marx) provides a brisk, well-researched scan of Ball's lengthy career, and an estimation of her considerable talent. But he can't seem to penetrate a couple of mysteries in her story: why her comedic gifts were employed so much more successfully on TV's "I Love Lucy" than in many film roles. And why she was such an aloof, ultimately embittered person in private life.

Ah well — you do get the lowdown here on the marriage and tumultuous breakup with hubby-co-star-business partner Desi Arnaz. And some startling reminders of just how much the public identified with and embraced their "Lucy," as America's clown-sweetheart-everywoman of early television.

For the dedicated playgoer

"Best Plays of 2001-2002," edited by drama critic Jeffrey Eric Jenkins (a former Seattle resident, now based in New York) is not a script anthology but a fact-rich yearbook reflecting on the 2001-2002 theater scene on and off Broadway, and beyond.

The crux of the volume is an assessment of the year's 10-best plays, introduced in thoughtful essays by leading theater critics. Many of the selected works for 2001-2002 have already been seen in Seattle ("Topdog/Underdog" by Suzan-Lori Parks, "The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?" by Edward Albee, "Metamorphoses" by Mary Zimmerman). But others are still to be staged here, including Kia Corthron's "Breath, Boom" and Richard Greenberg's "The Dazzle."

Along with the essays, this new edition (of an annual series of "best play" books that began in 1920) includes a substantial roundup of facts, photos and opinions to give a broad picture of the current American theater scene. Deservedly, it is dedicated to the late, irreplaceable artist Al Hirschfeld, whose deft caricatures of theater artists and stage productions also grace its pages.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com


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