One of the fascinating oddities of theater in South Florida is the offbeat locations where it turns up. Local companies are found in some of the least likely places: The Caldwell Theatre and Florida Stage are in strip malls, the Broward Stage Door sits behind an IHOP. The Mosaic is tucked in a school facility behind a football field. The Sol's funky storefront is across the street from a railroad line, while GableStage clings tenuously to the flank of the Biltmore Hotel like a tick bird on a rhinoceros.

But when considering oddball locations, the Hollywood Playhouse may take the prize: This veteran company has been ensconced since the 1950s in a leafy, modest residential neighborhood in Hollywood. This is about as far off Broadway as one can possibly get.

And yet there is something quite charming about this company and its loyal troupe of old-time theater buffs who frequent its aging, well-preserved hallways. Like the neighborhood, the Hollywood Playhouse feels like a throwback to an older, perhaps gentler time when theaters presented well-constructed plays and sets that get the first applause: When it's curtain time at the Playhouse, there really is a curtain that goes up.

If that's the sort of stage you're looking for, then have I got a show for you. Open Season, a world premiere by the prolific local playwright Michael McKeever, is an old-fashioned Broadway-style comedy with a lot of charm and some clever badinage. It's a nostalgic ode to show business, the sort of middle-brow trifle that used to showcase some aging stars, tour Boston and New Haven in tryouts, then come into Broadway for respectable runs of 40 to 50 performances, after which time the play would work its way toward oblivion in smaller theaters across the heartland. Nowadays Broadway isn't a welcoming environment for this kind of play, unless it's a splashy musical revival or a high-profile British import, or both. And so we find Open Season priming in our neck of the woods, having skipped over the Broadway sendoff entirely.

The story is simple, perhaps too simple. Aging star Mallory Du Pre reigns as the grande dame of Broadway, attended by her harried son Christian, a former child star who has thrown over his own television career to attend to his mother's eccentricities. Their co-dependent dance is interrupted by the arrival of Mallory's actor father, Edmund, a Barrymore-like patriarch who announces he's broke and wants to move into Mallory's Upper East Side Manhattan townhouse. Mallory, who seethes with resentment for the white-maned wastrel, objects vigorously but when he's felled with a nicely timed heart attack, she has no choice but to take him in.

The dilemma of the uninvited, disruptive guest is a situation familiar to anyone who has been near a play (or for that matter a television set) since well before the playhouse got going in the Eisenhower era. Some may call this premise a classic situation, some may call it a cliché. Call it what you will, McKeever neatly sets up his characters and their problem in the first act but then seems rather at a loss as to what to do with them in the second. Things happen in Open Season sure enough, but mostly at random and by accident.

The cast is appealing but not stellar, which is what the play requires. As Mallory, Angie Radosh, who did good comedic service last season (Black Sheep, Out Of Season), certainly has a knack with drollery. And her tall, leggy look and pinned-up hair give her more than a little resemblance to Kate Hepburn, who in her day would have been a natural in the role. But Radosh is a better fit as an ensemble actress than carrying the play on her back as she must here. In truth Mallory is an exceptionally challenging part. Not only must we buy Mallory as a character, which Radosh pulls off nicely, but also Mallory as a top-rank classical actress and an undisputed star. The script puts Mallory onstage briefly in very difficult roles: as Goneril in King Lear and as Medea. Radosh glows in these brief star turns but she doesn't blaze. Without incandescence, it's hard to buy her star power.

Bill Yule fares better as her tippling, libidinous father Edmund, whose dapper charm belies an equally conflicted soul. A versatile actor, Yule has an innate comedic sense as well as excellent timing, and he plays both the little show-biz in-jokes and his brief Shakespearean orations with relish. McKeever himself assays Christian in a fine, underplayed performance that recalls Jack Lemmon's acting style (and look). Director Amy London has staged the proceedings with a sprightly pace, though she's hindered somewhat by David K. Sherman's elaborate, marble-walled two-level set.

A grand piano dominates the stage and suggests some staging potential but it is never used, except to hold up framed photos; it merely serves to block the action, forcing most of it downstage in a flat, lateral space. As a result the staging lacks much flow and the potential for physicality is severely reduced. But London has a good feel for Open Season's winsome, comedic charms and her skilled cast knows how to exploit them.

Still the production left me with two unfulfilled wishes. First, I wanted McKeever and London to push the play toward a deeper, more emotional core. Sure this is light fare, but McKeever has clearly set his sights on some serious issues of parent/child relationships and the need for individual freedom. He keeps referencing the dysfunctional family ties in King Lear and cites Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire as well. But perhaps a better reference here is Williams's The Glass Menagerie, in which a frustrated son finally breaks free of his domineering mother. That's part of the equation of Open Season, and in this McKeever has the potential to deliver a more challenging, risky story (and perhaps could be the solution to his second-act woes). Which brings me to my second wish: Even though McKeever as actor brings a number of gifts to this production, I wish he weren't onstage during this run. Had he stayed a playwright and sat in the house watching, I suspect he would have found a way to improve and deepen his script.

All that said, there is a good dose of old-fashioned charm to this Open Season. McKeever has created some appealing, if familiar characters and his dialogue is crisp and often witty. If the plot seems to self-destruct in the second act, well, even this seems an ode to Broadway of years ago -- second-act problems kept Moss Hart in business as a script doctor for years. And why do you suppose Neil Simon's nickname is Doc?

The two faces of theater, as most everyone knows, are the masks of tragedy and comedy. But perhaps a better bifurcation would be between the theater of challenge and that of tradition. The theater of tradition promotes cultural assumptions. The best of this celebrates enduring values and communities, the worst narcoticises its audiences with sugary escapism. The theater of challenge critiques cultural assumptions, producing plays that make you think or squirm. The best of this creates healthy debate and soul-searching, the worst bludgeons its audiences with propaganda.

The South Florida season this fall has tipped mostly to the theater of challenge, but as the holiday season approaches, tradition is making a comeback. The local flagship of this style is clearly the Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables, which has mounted a charming, tuneful production of a classic, The Sound of Music. Like most traditional Broadway musicals, The Sound of Music is an adaptation, in this instance of the real-life adventures of the musical von Trapp family of Austria. The well-known story follows young, lovely Maria Rainer, who in 1938 reluctantly takes a job as the governess of the seven young children of Captain Georg von Trapp, a retired Austrian naval officer. Spirited Maria immediately butts heads with the strict, reserved captain, but she wows his kids and teaches them the joys of music. Eventually Maria and the captain fall in love, but as Nazism spreads across the land, they must flee with the children across the Alps to safety in Switzerland.

The Broadway playwriting team of Howard Lindsey and Russel Crouse (Life With Father, Anything Goes) adapted this saga as the basis for the musical, which features more character development than most, but its characters still seem rather saintly and the show has always had the reputation of being more saccharine than necessary. Nevertheless, with Richard Rodgers's great, flowing score and Oscar Hammerstein's lively lyrics, The Sound of Music has become an enduring, beloved classic. Those seeking the pleasures of traditional theater will find their bliss at the Playhouse's Miracle Theatre.

The company is playing to its strengths. As with last season's popular The King & I, the Playhouse again delivers a huge production with assurance. Artistic director David Arisco delivers crisp staging, and his design team -- set designer M.P. Amico, costume designer Catherine Zuber, and, especially, lighting designer Ginny Adams -- renders top-rank support. The cast is very strong overall, led by Jennifer Hughes as Maria. Hughes gives, yes, a spirited, winsome performance and she brings more vocal expression and emotional texture than Julie Andrews, the original Maria, did. As Captain von Trapp, Michael Scott is dignified and soulful but lacks much military bearing and his casual, relaxed style works against the story. This captain doesn't drum up much conflict with Maria and the play suffers for it.

The supporting cast is very solid, notably Sandy Ives as a graceful Elsa Schraeder, the captain's erstwhile fiancée, who becomes Maria's rival. This role is usually played as a cold fish, but Ives's take makes Elsa much more dimensioned and hence more formidable a rival. As Maria's mentor, the Mother Abbess, Mary Grace Gordon absolutely nails the famous first-act-ender, "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," while Gary Marachek romps as the droll theater impresario, Max Detweiler.

Praise also must be given to the splendid cast of young performers, two casts actually, who alternate performances. Although space prevents mentioning all, I must call your attention to Miss Karina Padura, all of seven years old, who is Gretl, the littlest von Trapp. Her supremely focused performance nearly stole the show on opening night. She alternates the role with Laura Sky Herman, even younger at five. Many of the children in the cast come up through the Playhouse's Conservatory, which offers acting classes for children ages five to eighteen. Traditions need new generations to carry them on.

The big Broadway musical isn't the only tradition on view these days. The M Ensemble serves up some solid, old-fashioned family drama with The Old Settler, John Henry Redwood's tale of two sisters in the Harlem of the 1940s.

Elizabeth Johnson is an unmarried middle-aged woman who is called an "old settler" (old maid) behind her back. She lives with her opinionated sister Quilly, who long ago married Elizabeth's onetime lover, causing a decades-long rift between the sisters. Into this household comes a sweet, naïve Southern man, Husband Witherspoon, who has arrived in Harlem in pursuit of his elusive girfriend, Lou Bessie Preston. Husband is a shy mamma's boy who longs for Lou Bessie but is uncomfortable in the fast-paced big city. During his stay at Elizabeth's, the pair strike up a friendship that turns into a May/September romance, a relationship that causes more than one upheaval.

Redwood's play has many pleasures. His characters are fully drawn, dimensioned, and touching. The story, set in Harlem's heyday, references all sorts of cultural aspects, from jazz to literature, from the Savoy Ballroom to Detroit Red, who came to be better known as Malcolm X. The play has a real sense of time and place and after a while, you really feel transported watching it.

The production design aids this time travel. E. Marcus Smith's set brings an authentic detail -- everything from the plates to the radio are pulled from the 1940s. The uncredited costume design is equally evocative. Same goes for Apon Nichol's delicate lighting design, though this is marred somewhat by awkward, unnecessarily abrupt light shifts.

The cast features only one experienced performer, Dorothy J. Morrison as the wisecracking Quilley, but it is a credit to director Jerry Maple, Jr., that the rest of the ensemble certainly holds its own. Kwame Riley does well as the slow-speaking, timid Husband, while the statuesque, striking Amaali turns Lou Bessie into a primping, posing femme fatale. But this production's great find is Carolyn Johnson in the title role. Johnson, who makes her professional debut here, brings an emotional honesty and focus that belies her lack of experience. Let's hope she will be seen again, and soon, on area stages.

The M Ensemble, which has been producing theater "to promote the African-American culture and experience" in South Florida, picked up a special Carbonell Award last month in recognition for its over 30 years of arts service. If you haven't dropped by the company's dandy, comfortable space, now is a good time to enjoy this enduring South Florida tradition.

Sometimes people do the right things for the wrong reasons. For instance it would have been nice if the owners of the new SoBe restaurant/lounge 6 Degrees had kept the locals of the community in mind when drawing up plans for their venture. They didn't. Instead, like so many others, they were set to go after the more generously budgeted out-of-town visitors via a fancy menu and entrées in the $30 range. It was only in the aftermath of 9/11, when tourists took a vacation from vacationing, that the 6 Degrees team decided to appeal to the neighborhood clientele: The cuisine was toned down, main-course prices dropped by a ten spot, and a hamburger was added to the menu. Lo and behold, tables have been filled by common folk (more or less) who appreciate a solid meal at a decent price, and 6 Degrees is starting off hot.

Especially on Thursday nights. We came to the restaurant on that evening without having called for reservations, my assumption being the place was too new to be fully occupied. It appeared I was correct when we entered at 9:00 and the 90-seat room contained just four diners. Tonight is "Drag Queen Night," we were then told at the door; the place will be packed in about half an hour. It was. I have to admit I've never fully appreciated the entertainment value of men who can't sing pretending to be women who can, but after the first performer finished lip-synching his song, the mostly gay male crowd was clearly delighted. On other evenings, which draw a somewhat more diversified cast of diners, a female dancer in a seductive outfit will occasionally enter the dining room, jump on an unoccupied table, and perform a KISS-like gyration to the music.

While these sideshows are rather garish, the high-ceilinged room, designed by lesser-known Ciccone sibling Christopher, radiates an elegant simplicity. Hardwood floors; crisp white linen tabletops; thick wooden blinds; mirrored portholes; and, elevated from the dining area, a long, polished bar of mirrors, mahogany, bottles, and brass create a suave supper-club ambiance. The entire space is bathed in a relaxing, ruby-red glow -- nice effect, but you'll need to borrow the waiter's flashlight to read the menu. And be forewarned: A mix of club music BOOMS over the speakers, even early at night, so much so that they probably don't have to hike the volume much when 6 Degrees seamlessly slides into loungeland at about 11:00 each evening. You might also note there's no designated section for nonsmokers.

Service is excellent. The waitstaff achieves just the right balance of amiability and professionalism and have been obviously well trained in fundamentals -- like when to approach a table, how to remove plates, replace silverware, deliver a check promptly, and pour wine. The wine selection could use some bolstering, but the short selection does offer popular labels ranging from Kendall-Jackson to Opus One.

Chef Jason Strom's Mediterranean-influenced American comfort food is by no means cutting edge (Atlantic salmon in puff pastry with shiitake mushrooms and caviar beurre blanc was last deemed exciting when Ronald Reagan was president) but does manage to satisfy in a consistent manner. We tried two of the five nonsalad beginnings, each priced at $10 or $11, starting with a roasted red-pepper crêpe. It was too plump to be a proper crêpe and didn't appear to have gone through any roasting process, but the cushiony red pancake was filled with full flavors coaxed from morsels of chicken breast, mushrooms, and slightly crunchy sautéed fennel and onions moistened with citrus butter sauce.

A trio of lightly seared scallops, fresh and succulent atop a truffle-infused purée of celery root (or celeriac, a knobby root vegetable with celery-parsley taste), was colorfully encircled by a stream of tomato oil and cold green peas, whose cooking process evidently went no further than defrosting. The shellfish and purée were a tasty tandem but needed more assertive contrasts, as in something spicy or salty to counteract the sweetness of ingredients and something crunchy (other than a few peas) to offset the softness.

Thirteen main courses comprise four fish, four meat, one penne pasta, a pan-seared chicken, a hamburger, and two vegetarian entrées, both of which venture beyond the clumsy combos commonly found in vapid vegetable plates: grilled portobello mushroom with sweet-pea risotto, tomato syrup, and parsnip crisps; and lasagna layered with oven-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, and a rich tomato-basil Béchamel sauce that was so delectable it bore witness to the wisdom of the longstanding southern Italian preference for serving this dish meatless.

Chef Strom achieves a homespun feel to his food partly by using comforting, oft-overlooked root vegetables like celery root and parsnips. The latter gets whipped with potatoes and placed beneath meltingly soft slices of cider-marinated pork tenderloin, the entrée further enhanced by tangy brown sauce, sweetly caramelized apples, and a frizzle of fried onions. A solid deal at $18 -- some starters cost a couple of dollars more than they should, but main courses, $15 to $25, are very reasonably priced.

A lightly grilled square of ahi tuna came sliced diagonally in the middle to show off a smooth, burgundy-tinted center that paired well with a soothing pool of reduced merlot. The idea here was to offer a rustic variation on the yellowfin, but a slight scattering of roasted red-pepper strips and caramelized shallots, along with small scoop of pedestrian potato purée, yielded an unexpectedly incohesive result. The overall effect of the plate was like that of a stage filled with talented actors not connecting in an uninteresting play.

The hamburger, on the other hand, was strongly supported by a delicious thicket of crisp, truffle-oiled homemade French fries. The burger was topnotch, too, a hefty, hand-formed, honest patty of grilled ground sirloin, nicely charred on the exterior, juicy medium-rare within, and plopped in a soft bun with a thick disk of sweet white onion, tomato slice, and romaine lettuce leaf.

I imagined that the chocolate tower for two would arrive as some soaring architectural construct of cocoa components, but it was really more a mound of fudgelike brownie and disks of bitter and semisweet chocolate cakes bound with stiff chocolate mousse. Perhaps some at the table were disappointed with the less-than-spectacular presentation, but they surely weren't let down by the intense (but not intensely sweet) chocolate flavors, vanilla ice cream, and Baileys-boosted chocolate sauce. We also enjoyed the berry cobbler, a hot, baked casserole of sweetened strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries beneath a sugary battered crust -- they should consider removing some sugar from the filling, though, since the fruit and crust are sweet enough.

In some cities a handsome new restaurant offering good food and service at a fair price might be considered superfluous. In Miami Beach it's a novelty, and one to be relished by locals for all the right reasons.

On a rainy January morning in a bar open to the sidewalk in Sevilla's riverside neighborhood Triana, a construction worker stomps a freshly laid ceramic-tile floor in boots stained with orange-colored clay. He is clapping, marking the rhythm of a flamenco song with palmas. Cigarette clamped between his teeth, he sings absently. With a reverbing ay-yi low in his throat, he serenades the office-bound traffic maneuvering past him down a narrow, centuries-old street.

The construction worker singing to himself in this upscale bar is a reminder of the neighborhood's past. Traditionally a center of the Café Cantantes, where flamenco flourished in the Nineteenth Century, Triana was once known for its congenial mix of Gypsies and white Spaniards, most of them laborers. Until the neighborhood was gentrified in the mid-Sixties, flamenco also was nourished in Triana's low-income housing complexes, called corrals -- level buildings with an open-air patio in the center where there was a communal sink and family members found relief from the hot nights. The Triana style of singing, now largely forgotten, was cultivated while washing, cooking, and passing the night hours in the patio.

"We lived with 28 families," says Paco Taranto. Now a teacher at the flamenco school Fundación Cristina Heeren, Taranto remembers the smell of spearmint and jasmine in the patio -- and the neighbors who threw an extra handful of rice into their pots to feed those who had none. When city bureaucrats resettled the corral dwellers to low-income apartments outside the city, Taranto refused to go. "I was the last to leave. They had to take me out by force," he recalls. "They did a lot of damage to the songs of Triana. And they wiped out a way of life."

Although no one is certain of its origin, flamenco today embodies both the most hackneyed tourist-trapping clichés and the real spirit of life in southern Spain. Once established in Andalusia, the genre was developed over the centuries by bricklayers, prisoners, and miners, in bordellos, cantinas, patios, and parties in marginal neighborhoods in the towns and countryside of the region. Flamenco can still erupt suddenly at any gathering, as palms press together at a pause in conversation and rouse traditional verses about lost love, hard luck, or, likely, the beauty of Sevilla itself.

What is clear is that the powers that be have always had a hand in shaping flamenco and the lives of the people who make the music. Since the fall of Franco, the democratic government -- eager to integrate Spain with Europe and the rest of the world -- has actively promoted flamenco by distributing recordings, sponsoring song and dance competitions, and hosting events like the Bienal de Flamenco in Sevilla, while also supporting the promotion of a more contemporary image of flamenco abroad.

All day long the Fundación Cristina Heeren de Arte Flamenco is thronged with guitars, clattering heels, and chanting song, at turns melodious and slightly off-key, accented by random thumping and triumphant shouts. About 200 students take flamenco guitar, singing, and dance classes in this three-story, seventeenth-century house on the border of the old Jewish quarter of Sevilla. Although the foundation offers beginner courses and dance for children, this is primarily a professional school, teaching advanced flamenco technique to mostly college-age Spaniards as well as foreigners from Japan, Holland, the United States, and elsewhere. Like characters in a flamenco version of Fame, guitarists and dancers practice and flirt in the interior patio between classes or convene at a nearby café. Instructors, in addition to coaching their charges in technique, give real-world advice, like reminding them to take the gum out of their mouths and put it behind their ears before they sing.

"We're creating a method over a world of anarchy," asserts Cristina Heeren, an American who has lived in southern Spain since 1978 and opened the foundation six years ago. Next month the school will begin presenting flamenco performances in a theater in the center of town. "Flamenco is such difficult music. It requires so much knowledge. That's why we decided we have to teach it as flamenco culture. Our students know all the different styles and the names of the artists who invented those styles."

There are nearly 40 basic flamenco palos, or types of song, encompassing laments, work songs, romances, and songs of celebration representing different areas of Andalusia (with Cadiz being the widely acknowledged "cradle" of flamenco). Since flamenco is an oral tradition, no musical notation is allowed; students bring tape recorders to class.

Singer Javier Hidalgo is a docent at the school, and one of a quartet of artists affiliated with the foundation who will perform at the Centro Cultural Español in Coral Gables tonight. Unlike most of Spain's post-Franco youth, Hidalgo always preferred flamenco to rock and had little interest in foreign bands or the flamenco fusion popular in the Eighties. (In many cases those experiments were based on rumba rhythms -- think Gipsy Kings -- which purists do not classify as flamenco, but they nevertheless made audiences in Spain and abroad more open to the flamenco sound.) [page]

"Flamenco is just the music that I like, and it's being from here, the land, that nurtures that," Hidalgo, who worked in construction before joining the foundation, explains over mint tea in the corner café. A tall, attractive 26-year-old with a ponytail and scruffy beard, he is a graceful, not guttural, singer, who lends the improvisational stylings of a jazz vocalist to the traditional lyrics he performs. "I'm open to experimentation, but you have to have a solid base in flamenco before you can do anything else. If you have a house with only a roof, that's not going to work. You have to build the foundation first."

Rafael Campallo, age 27, a compact dancer with short spiky hair, joins Hidalgo in Miami this week. "I have another life apart from flamenco; I'm a young guy," he says with a grin. "But when I put my boots on, that's when I really express who I am." Campallo, who has become known for his subtle footwork and commanding stage presence, has just returned from New York, where he was working with a tap dancer from Harlem on a piece for Sevilla's Bienal de Flamenco in September.

The Bienal, a "flamenco marathon," according to director Manuel Herrera, is sponsored by the Andalusian government and conceived as a showcase for various forms of flamenco in theaters, bars, and the patios of city institutions, formerly grand homes. "Flamenco is an art, and like every art it evolves," says Herrera. "Young people today have the advantage of living in freedom, freedom of expression and social freedom. Youth involved in flamenco now choose what they like best for them. Flamenco is a living art that can develop and adapt with the times."

"This is flamenco," proclaims Chico Ocaña, the smoke-and-gravel-voiced singer of the group Mártires del Compás, who refers to his band's urban contemporary music as "flamenco billy." He settles on a wooden bench outside El Chiringuito, a bar hidden away on an ancient winding cobblestone street. Benches arranged to face each other fill up comfortably, and tables in the center are covered with beer bottles. Other members of Mártires del Compás are already warming their feet by a pile of hot coals. "Flamenco is hanging-out music; it's spontaneous," Ocaña observes. "You have to be in a place like this to really experience the strange and marvelous thing that is flamenco."

Contemporary flamenco legend Cameron de la Isla blares from the stereo inside the small bar as Ocaña, who says he is versed in 37 palos, explains his art. "Flamenco is like the moon on the water," he says. "It's there, but it's not there. It's a surrealist vocation. The facts we have don't tell us where, or how, or why flamenco; if it's Gypsy or if it's not Gypsy. Where is the thread that leads to a beginning? Flamenco is simply a way of life; it's a true feeling."

The Mártires have created their own style of flamenco feeling drawing from, among other influences, Pink Floyd, the Sex Pistols, Miles Davis, and Hector Lavoe. Their latest disc, Mordiendo el Duende, as well as three previous albums, have dealt, variously, with African immigrants in Spain, domestic violence, and Ocaña's experiences in New York and Cuba. As singer and lyricist, he says that although they incorporate rock, jazz, tango, and other rhythms into their music, theirs is not flamenco fusion but a contemporary form of pure flamenco.

"We defend our mix," says the singer. "We always build on a base of flamenco and always follow its philosophy. I think flamenco is a lot more flexible than what the orthodox people would lead you to believe. In every era flamenco has always been affected by the sociopolitical situation, as our music is. Before, flamenco was marginalized by high society, by the church, by the government, because it comes from the underground -- bad living, drink, prostitution, Gypsies, people who spent the night partying, wrapped in alcohol and sex.

"If this had been during the Franco era," he adds, sipping his beer and pointing to the open door of the bar, "there would have been a sign here saying “no cante' -- no flamenco singing -- allowed."

Now, as Europe fumbles to make sense of the new common currency, Spaniards claim flamenco -- in all its forms -- as a symbol of national pride and personal identity. Outside El Chiringuito, smoke hangs in the night air. A girl with a pierced nose starts to sing. The bartender joins her. Later, a tiny woman with bleached hair, who looks like a character out of an Almodovar movie, comes in off the street. She pounds on a guitar, shrieking her own hilarious versions of popular Spanish songs. In recognition for her innovation, she demands euros.

The plot of The Bourne Identity is astonishingly straightforward. It is bereft of twists (instead we're offered tangible explanations), free of the gaping plot holes that swallow confused viewers, and absent the cynical machinations of filmmakers who believe that to entertain it's necessary to also bamboozle. This adaptation of Robert Ludlum's 1980 novel, written by Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron and directed by Doug Liman (Go and Swingers), is almost anachronistic, a vestigial remnant of 1970s spy-game thrillers in which the paranoid were almost always right; someone was out to get them, usually their best friends and bosses. It reminds one of Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and even Sam Peckinpah's The Killer Elite, so much so that it plays almost antiquated by today's lowered standards. Strip away the few notes of techno that skitter across the soundtrack, and you're left with a rather contemplative film -- a thriller of gentle nudges.

Adapted once before, in a drab 1988 made-for-TV miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain, the Ludlum novel serves only as loose source material. Long gone, for instance, is Carlos, the assassin who appears throughout Ludlum's novels, including two more with CIA agent Jason Bourne. Liman and his screenwriters have stripped the book bare, turning a cruise ship into a speedboat. Ludlum, who died last year, was the master of pretzel-logic thrillers. Here the filmmakers have untangled the knots and dangled the novelist's hero from a long, straight rope.

The film begins as Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is being pulled from the Mediterranean Sea by fishermen who mistake him for dead. He is, in a sense: Bourne, or whatever his name really is, has no knowledge of who he is or what he does. He lacks identification, save for two bullets in his back and a laser device embedded in his hip that reveals the name of a bank in Zurich and an account number. The audience, however, knows immediately who he works for and what he's up to: We're introduced to Conklin (Chris Cooper), a gruff CIA boss (and modern-day cinema's oldest prototype, the malevolent government stooge) prone to barking short, sharp orders ("Get it done! Get everybody up! Work it!"). Conklin has botched an assassination attempt on an exiled rebel leader (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Oz's Simon Adebisi) who is threatening to out the CIA and its dirty work. Bourne was the operative in charge of the hit, and now he's presumed dead or dirty. The rest of the film is little more than a chase. Bourne and his reluctant passenger, Run Lola Run's Franka Potente, try to simultaneously elude Conklin and his cronies (including Croupier's Clive Owen and Julia Stiles in, essentially, prolonged cameos) and figure out just who the hell he is.

The first scenes in which Damon struggles to remember his identity are well played. He asks himself who he is, over and over, in various languages (French, German), and the questions roll from his tongue in such a way as to suggest he doesn't even realize he's not speaking English. He's lost his name, but not his identity; if he doesn't know who or quite what he is, he at least knows what he is capable of. ("I know that at this altitude, I can run flat out for half a mile before my hands start shaking," he explains. "How can I know that, but not know who I am?") Damon looks lost and dazed, but never frightened, as though somewhere in Bourne's broken mind he retains fragments he's actually trying to forget. In the film's earliest scenes -- on the fishing boat, in a speeding train -- Damon never catches a clear glimpse of himself. In the reflections from a grimy mirror and a train window, he's fuzzy, distorted -- a man who can't even tell what he looks like. When he does realize he's an assassin, he's disappointed and even ashamed; amnesia, once more, renders the nasty man a compassionate one.

Save for two action sequences so outrageous the apologist is tempted to dismiss them as parody, The Bourne Identity almost feels as though it were filmed in slow motion, yet it never drags. In no hurry to conclude its pursuit, even a car chase through Paris plays measured, leaving only dents and thuds instead of crashes and flames. It's sharp enough to spoof the form (Potente, as wandering soul Marie Kreutz, mocks Bourne's undercover acumen by carrying out a dirty deed in plain sight), but never so cynical it feels the need to sneer. And the considered pace serves to bond Damon and Potente, who say little to each other -- that she's merely with this man implies extraordinary trust -- yet become lovers long before they fall into bed. In one scene he dyes and cuts her hair to disguise her, and when they finally kiss it seems oddly redundant.

The filmmakers never feel the need to fill in the blanks, not even Bourne. They hint at things -- why, for instance, an assassin abhors guns -- without being explicit. Through an effective use of Clive Owen, whose few lines sound like poetry, they even suggest the trained killer's guilt without spelling it out. That makes it not only an exceptional thriller but a transcendent summer movie: It assumes, for two hours, you've brain and heart enough to stick with a film that doesn't condescend, doesn't beat you up, and doesn't dumb you to death.

If you're a fan of the baseball cap-wearin', Nader-votin', muckrakin', best-sellin', corporation-confrontin' son of a gun known as Michael Moore, all you need to know about his latest film, Bowling for Columbine, is that it's more of the same. You know, the mix of easy humor, attempts (some successful, most not) at interviewing and confronting corporate crooks, and the odd emotional sucker punch that'll leave you in horror until he comes back with a laugh a few minutes later. Tonal shifts are what Moore does best: There are numerous moments in this film, as in Roger and Me, that may make you cry, but by the end you'll be laughing again, in a manner that neither negates nor trivializes the impact of his more serious points.Given that Nader got less than five percent of the national vote, however, and that Moore's previous films and TV shows have not been blockbusters, he can't have a successful movie if only folks like him go. So how does it shape up if you're not among the acolytes?

Hard to say, but one would suspect that it might be hit and miss. The movie is a look at our gun culture, an exploration provoked by the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999 (prior to the kill spree, Columbine killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris went bowling, hence the title); the same day, Moore tells us, that the U.S. dropped more bombs on the former Yugoslavia than on any other occasion. As he first shows up on camera, Moore is opening a bank account at a financial institution that gives its patrons free guns. Later he buys bullets in a barbershop. Soon he's hanging out with the Michigan militia, the group to which Timothy McVeigh infamously belonged, and they lead him to James Nichols, brother of McVeigh's co-conspirator Terry. Nichols proves to be both scary and unintentionally hilarious, blaming his troubles with the law solely on his ex-wife, advocating armed revolt, and when asked by Moore what he thinks about Gandhi's philosophy, pausing to declare, "I'm not familiar with that."

Conservatives, if they plan on lining Moore's pockets with ticket money and actually seeing this thing, may well go in on the defensive, and why not? Moore's generally known for criticizing all their beliefs. But there's one liberal standby that goes unsaid: No one in the film ever mentions or advocates gun control. Moore does try to get Kmart to stop selling ammunition, and to some that may sound like the same thing, but he never proposes the banning of guns. The film will probably surprise many liberals, too, with its look at guns in other countries -- turns out Canadians love their firearms as much as we do. Yet they don't even lock their front doors.

Where Bowling for Columbine is at its most valuable is in its examination of America's culture of fear as a root cause of gun violence. Fears of race, scary TV news stories, Y2K, and others are all shown as examples, with a particularly hilarious (and genuine) news story standing out on "Africanized" killer bees that are "more aggressive" and have "bigger body parts" than "European" bees. Why fear and paranoia are so pervasive over here isn't clear, though Marilyn Manson shows up with a plausible explanation -- "Keep everyone afraid, and they'll consume" (his own career is perhaps proof of that much).

The film's biggest weakness is that it doesn't always stay on point, and occasionally goes for the cheap shot -- honestly, do we need to see footage from Columbine security cameras, or the first World Trade Center plane crash again? Moore's on the ball when he uses humor to make his points, but he tends to overcompensate -- a montage of CIA atrocities set to Louis Armstrong music is used to negate an average guy's pro-America outlook, and Moore might as well be squashing a fly with a mallet.

Which brings up another question: Can't Moore find a conservative who's a good debater? It seems that anytime he actually manages to confront a heavy hitter, said big shot merely walks away or slams the door when confronted with a question he or she doesn't like (Nike CEO Phil Knight was the rare exception in Moore's book-tour documentary, The Big One). It makes the exchanges all seem one-sided, which may be the point, since his movies tend to preach to the converted. As a result, the film's not as informative as it could be; as Websites like have documented, Moore can get sloppy with his fact-checking. Now, if an ideologue from the opposite end of the spectrum, say Bill O'Reilly or someone like that, were to debate Moore on camera, that would be interesting. Which isn't to say that Moore is wrong and O'Reilly's right (the converse is far more likely), rather that a worthy opponent will force a man to strengthen his arguments.

The two most storied teams in the long history of Cuban baseball, the Havana Reds and the Almendares Blues, are waiting for the last of their teammates to show for today's game. One Red claims he's too tired to throw the ball around: "No puedo. Estoy cansado ..." Another can't find his glove and accuses a teammate of hiding it. "¿Donde está?!" he demands, water beginning to collect in his eyes. Two Blues wrestle near the third-base bag.

The scene isn't Havana's Gran Stadium in the Fifties, but rather, Little Havana's Riverside Park on a recent Saturday morning. And these aren't legendary players from Cuba's last, great golden age of professional baseball. They're kids, ages eight to ten, members of Los Cubanos Libres or The Free Cubans, a baseball academy.

The Free Cubans, founded in 1970 by a group of retired ballplayers, re-creates the look and feel of the defunct Cuban League of the Forties and Fifties. As with American youth leagues, players are put in divisions according to their age. Instead of being sponsored by the local hardware store or supermarket and playing for the "Little Yankees" or "Little Indians," though, they play for the city of Havana or neighboring Almendares. Parents pay a monthly fee and replica jerseys, true to the originals in color, style, and lettering, are purchased from the academy. Los Cubanos Libres flourished in the Seventies and Eighties, when it had almost two hundred students playing for one of four teams -- Cienfuegos and Marianao, in addition to Havana and Almendares -- in three different age groups. Many of the alums went on to play college baseball, some signed professional contracts, a couple eventually made it to the majors, and one -- Rafael Palmeiro of the Texas Rangers -- is a potential Hall-of-Famer.

The academy, virtually unknown to nonCubans, was a vital, symbolic link to the island's prerevolutionary baseball culture. Like every exile institution that traded on the past -- Cuban radio stations that revived their call letters on the South Florida dial and Cuban food brands transplanted from the island that found their way onto Little Havana bodega shelves, for example -- Los Cubanos Libres was at once a nostalgic reminder of what were considered better days and a practical adaptation to life in Miami.

But that was then. In recent years, as the memory of the Cuban League has receded and the demographics of Little Havana have changed, the academy's enrollment has shrunk to a handful. To the outside observer, things don't look good. But don't tell that to Vicente Lopez, the man who has run Los Cubanos since its inception. Lopez, a onetime pitching star in Cuba, knows a thing or two about comebacks. And survival.

His mind, as sharp as his curve ball once was, recalls every stop on his fifteen-year professional-baseball odyssey: seasons in the Cuban League, summers in the Mexican League, with minor-league stints in Miami, Fort Worth, Newport News, and Mobile. Ask Vicente Lopez what game he remembers best, and he'll answer without hesitation: August 16, 1956. On that day, as a 29-year-old pitcher for the Mexico City Red Devils, pitching in the stadium Parque del Seguro Social, he outlasted fellow Cuban star Julio "Jiquí" Moreno and the Yucatan Lions 2-1, giving Mexico City the league title. "The Reds had never won a championship," says Lopez, sitting in a shaded courtyard in Miami's Little Havana, "and the fans went crazy."

Baseball in Latin America was (and is) like that: more religion than recreation. Men like Vicente Lopez were its high priests.

Indeed, Lopez -- whose baseball life spans both sides of the Florida Straits, who competed with and against two generations of legendary Cuban and American ballplayers, and who, as a youth-league coach, has taught hundreds, maybe even thousands, of South Florida youngsters to play the game -- just may be, as Yogi Berra might say, the most famous local baseball man nobody knows about.

Nobody, that is, except his contemporaries and the people in his neighborhood. "Maestro!" shouts an elderly Cuban man, walking briskly past the courtyard of the apartment building Lopez currently calls home, "como se siente?" Lopez, wearing a uniform of burgundy cotton pajamas and black loafers, ponders the question: How is he feeling? "Well," he says, in the same even tone of voice in which he once must have addressed managers visiting the mound, wanting to know the same thing, "I feel better. Getting stronger all the time." The man waves, smiles, and is gone.

"The doctors found a polyp on my colon," Lopez explains, stoically. "They snipped two inches." He'll soon begin chemotherapy. "I'm lucky," he says. "With Jiquí, the surgeons just closed him back up. They couldn't do anything for him." Moreno, Lopez's sometime pitching rival and longtime friend, succumbed to cancer in 1987. [page]

"Did you know Adrian Zabala passed away recently?" he asks a young man sitting in the courtyard. He smiles at his own mention of the great Cuban lefty from the Forties. "He was one hell of a pitcher." He sighs. "Not like today's pitchers. They don't know how to finish. Nobody goes nine innings anymore."

Vicente Lopez was born in the Havana suburb of Cotorro, in 1926, and instantly thrust into the national obsession with béisbol. "In Cuba," remembers Lopez, "everybody was a ballplayer."

Certainly it must have seemed that way. The game had been introduced to the island in the Nineteenth Century, with the first contest between organized teams reputed to have occurred in 1874, in the province of Matanzas, east of Havana. Baseball, in the context of Cuba's ongoing fight for independence -- the Cubans fought two separate wars against Spain in the late Nineteenth Century -- became a symbol of resistance to colonial oppression, not so much the national pastime as the national identity.

"Every town had a local team," says Lopez, "and we would play clubs from surrounding towns, places like Santa Maria and Cuatro Caminos. Some players distinguished themselves more than others, but we were all pretty good."

Lopez, a tall, thin right-hander with a developing curve ball, was better than most and became a much-sought-after player in Cuba's so-called Juvenile League, and later, in the renowned Amateur League. He entered the latter in 1946, when he was recommended to Club Central Hershey ("like the chocolate"), a top-flight sugarmill team. The invitation to join the club did not come easily. "They watched me win one game 5-1, then another 3-1," says Lopez. "But it wasn't until I pitched against Deportivo Rosario [the team that eventually won the Amateur League championship that year] that they offered me a contract." In the game, Lopez had dominated the league's powerhouse, beating the team 2-0 and striking out eighteen batters. Hershey had signed one sweet pitcher.

The Amateur League in baseball-crazed Cuba was a breeding ground for future stars and closely followed by fans and professional scouts alike. Lopez made the most of the spotlight. In 1948 Club Hershey won the championship by a half game, a statistical anomaly explained by the fact that a contest earlier in the season ended in a scoreless tie and was never made up. The game, nevertheless, remains memorable to the man who hurled it. "Ten innings against Regla [a town across the bay from Havana] and I struck out eighteen," grins Lopez.

His curve ball was by now a wicked thing, a slow, serpentine devil of a pitch that fooled, froze, and generally tormented batters. At 21, Lopez was not only an accomplished pitcher -- tremendo lanzador -- but a tough competitor, one whose age and boyish looks belied a steely demeanor. "He was inscrutable," recalls lifelong Cuban baseball fan Charles Monfort, who witnessed every Cuban League season between 1930 and 1961. "Inside, he might have been nervous, but you'd never see it on the mound."

The Brooklyn Dodgers liked what they saw on the mound, and signed the young Cuban to a minor-league contract following the 1948 amateur season. In Cuba, Lopez would pitch for Almendares, the Cuban League club with which the Dodgers had recently signed a working agreement, essentially turning the franchise into a Brooklyn farm team.

The Almendares Blues (or Scorpions, as they were also called) was one of four teams in the Cuban League, along with the Havana Reds (or Lions), the Cienfuegos Elephants, and the Marianao Tigers. The teams were all based in and around the capital city and played their games in Havana's brand-new Gran Stadium, a gorgeous 35,000-seat ballpark built just prior to the 1946-47 season. "The Gran Stadium cost two million dollars, in 1946 money," recalls Julio Sanchez, for years a popular broadcaster and sports journalist in Havana. "It had nothing but unobstructed views."

The Cuban League season consisted of roughly 70 games played between October and February, a period during which the island's baseball fans followed the exploits of their favorite players with an intensity rarely seen in the United States. Indeed one need only consider Almendares's team slogan to gauge the depth of feeling among its faithful: "He who defeats Almendares," warned the famous refrain, "dies!"

Not that Cienfuegos or Marianao ever had much to worry about. During the Forties and early Fifties, and for most of the Cuban League's existence, the championship usually was won by either Almendares or its archrival, Havana. Or, as Agapito Mayor, a star pitcher for Almendares in the Forties and early Fifties, still likes to boast: "We'd lose some games, sure, but we won a lot more than we ever lost. A lot more." [page]

This was the team, then, that Vicente Lopez, Dodger recruit, joined for the 1948-49 season. He pitched mostly in relief that year, winning no games and losing one, but he nevertheless impressed his teammates. "Vicente, even as a kid, was a great pitcher," remembers Andres Fleitas, the catcher on that Almendares team, who now lives in Miami. "He had a great curve, a formidable changeup [a pitch similar to a curve], and he was gutsy. He had courage on the mound."

The 1948-49 Blues, though, didn't need much help from the rookie. In addition to Fleitas and Mayor, the team featured Conrado Marrero, one of the finest pitchers ever to play in the Cuban League; a slick-fielding shortstop named Willie Miranda; and talented Negro League outfielders Sam Jethro and Monte Irvin. All would eventually play in the majors, Jethro and Irvin becoming two of the first African Americans to crack organized baseball's color line. (Another player, first baseman Chuck Connors, would make it big not in baseball but on television, as The Rifleman.) Almendares took the title.

Afterward Lopez took to the road, packing his bags for Miami and the Florida International League, where he would pitch for the Dodgers' Class B team, the Sun Sox. Given his limited action during the Cuban League season -- he pitched a total of eleven innings -- he knew this would count as his real professional debut. The Dodgers would be watching. Lopez did not disappoint, pitching well enough to win eighteen games that season for Miami.

His most significant victory that year, historically and personally, may have come on opening day when Lopez was given the honor of christening Miami's new stadium. Built at the corner of NW 10th Avenue and 23rd Street in Allapattah, Miami Stadium was a gem of a ballpark. "I know of no more beautiful stadium in the country," declared Major League Baseball Commissioner A.B. "Happy" Chandler. Certainly, parquet floors in the clubhouse and an elevator that carried reporters up to the press box were not standard amenities in minor-league parks. But Miami Stadium had both.

And, on opening day, it had Vicente Lopez, pitching for the hometown team against the Havana Cubans. Lopez and the Sun Sox won by a score of 6-1. "The Cubans were the best team in that league," says the pitcher, thinking back to the evening then-Miami Herald sports editor Jimmy Burns called "the greatest night in Miami's baseball history." So what if the stadium had been financed with money stolen from the Cuban Treasury by a corrupt former cabinet member turned baseball impresario (see "Rough Diamond," New Times, August 15, 1996)?

In 1950 Lopez returned to Miami for his second and, he hoped, his last season with the Class B Sun Sox. If he pitched anywhere as well as he had in '49, the Dodgers would have to promote him. He did not dare dream aloud, but he could almost smell the pizza baking in Brooklyn.

Opposing batters smelled only failure. Lopez tore through the Florida International League that season, winning twenty games and losing only six. Most impressive, however, was the manner in which he finished the campaign, pitching five successive shutouts, including three in the league playoffs to give Miami the championship. "I set two league records that year," beams Lopez, "17 consecutive victories and 46 scoreless innings in a row." The last two shutouts came against the Havana Cubans, perennial contenders and a team that, in the opinion of many, was only a notch below major-league caliber. To this day, it would be hard to name a pitcher who ever had a better two-year stretch for a professional team in Miami.

The Brooklyn Dodgers, who had lost the 1950 National League pennant to the Philadelphia Phillies by only two games, and who had only two reliable starting pitchers in their rotation, took note. That winter, a month and a half into the Cuban League season, they notified Lopez that they wanted to see him pitch a particular Sunday game, against Cienfuegos and another ascending star in the Dodgers system, Joe Black. "[Black and I] were both supposed to go to Dodger training camp the following spring," remembers Lopez.

It had been a meteoric rise. Less than three years earlier, he had pitched Central Hershey to a Cuban Amateur League title. Now Lopez appeared to be on the brink of the major leagues, only a few months away from possibly joining countrymen like Conrado Marrero and Julio Moreno in the Show.

Almendares and Cienfuegos met on December 17 at the Gran Stadium. Both Lopez and Black, a powerfully built, African-American fireballer, pitched as if the future depended on it, because theirs did. Inning after inning, they matched each other, hurling brilliantly, forcing the opposition to scratch for runs, allowing one, then two, but no more. "I pitched ten innings," says Lopez, with a mixture of pride and regret, "and left the game in a 2-2 tie." He had also, he realized, thrown his arm out in the process. Brooklyn would have to wait. (Joe Black would join the Dodgers the following year, in 1952, winning fifteen games and leading Brooklyn to the World Series.) [page]

In the spring of 1951, Lopez, now 24 years old, reported to Fort Worth, the Dodger affiliate in the Class AA Texas League. It was a promotion, but not the one he'd wanted. Texas was not nearly as hospitable as Miami, where at least some Cubans resided. "All I knew how to say in English were baseball phrases and how to ask for food," remembers Lopez, who, truth be told, never learned to say much more than that.

Early in the year, the Cuban pitcher thought his arm had healed completely. "I beat Dallas 6-0, then I beat San Antonio 8-0," he recalls, pulling box scores from his memory. "I had my velocity back. Everything was working." Until a game against Oklahoma City. "I was winning by something like 4-0 or 5-0 in the fourth inning and then, all of a sudden, I couldn't reach home plate with my pitches." He shakes his head. "They had to take me out of the game. I didn't even qualify for the victory." He hadn't gone enough innings.

In order to make it to the majors, a ballplayer, regardless of how much skill he may possess, also needs a little luck. Vicente Lopez's ran out that day in 1951. And he probably knew it even then. "Before I hurt my arm," he says more than 50 years later, reaching up instinctively toward his right shoulder with his left hand, "I was a competitive pitcher. I could be beaten, but I could also beat the best on any day."

No more. He stayed in baseball -- what else did he know to do? -- but not as a big-time prospect. Instead, he became a career minor-leaguer, bouncing from team to team, content simply to stay in the game and make a living. He returned to the Miami Sun Sox in 1952 and pitched solidly before being sent to Newport News, Virginia, later in the year. In 1953 he turned up in Mobile, Alabama, pitching briefly in the Southern Association, then later with his hometown Havana Cubans. Somewhere along the way, the Dodgers cut him loose.

Still he persisted, making it in 1954 to the newly inaugurated Havana Sugar Kings, Cuba's entry in the Class AAA International League. Technically, it was the closest Lopez would ever get to the majors, but he was no longer the one the scouts had their eyes on. So the Sugar Kings sold his contract to a team from Mexico City. "The Mexican League wanted to enter Major League Baseball," explains Lopez, recalling a popular rumor that circulated in the mid-Fifties, "so other teams sold a lot of ballplayers over there."

There would still be memorable days: the afternoon in 1956 when he defeated Moreno and Yucatan for the championship; the following year, a victory in the prestigious Caribbean Series as a member of the Cuban team. But mostly Lopez would endure as a journeyman, pitching in Cuba in the winter and Mexico in the summer, getting by on guile and that once-majestic curve ball, its effectiveness compromised by the lack of an adequate fastball to go with it.

His desire, though, remained. "Once, when Vicente was playing in Mexico," recalls Andres Fleitas, "his manager said to me, “You know, this guy's pretty good, but he wants to tell me when he's going to pitch.' Vicente would say to him, “Hey, it's my day today.'"

Lopez pitched in Cuba until 1958, eventually playing with all four teams in the professional league. To hear him tell it, he got out just in time: "When Fidel came to power [in 1959], I said, “That's it. I'm not pitching anymore.'" He cites the antics the revolution and its maximum leader visited upon the national game as a motivating factor.

The incidents, both occurring during the 1959 International League season, are infamous. The first took place shortly after midnight on the morning of July 26, during an extra-inning contest involving the Sugar Kings and the Rochester Red Wings. Sometime during the eleventh inning, celebrations marking the anniversary of the 1953 attack on the Moncada army barracks by Fidel Castro -- the symbolic origin of the revolution -- broke out just beyond the stadium walls in Havana. During the festivities, stray bullets managed to find two human targets inside the stadium: Rochester's third-base coach and Sugar King shortstop Leo Cardenas. Neither man was seriously hurt, but the incident resulted in the Red Wings' immediate departure from the island. Other International League teams expressed concern over playing in Cuba. Nevertheless, the season continued. [page]

Two months later, the Minneapolis Millers traveled to Havana to play the Sugar Kings for the league title. The Cubans led the best-of-seven series handily, three games to one, when the Millers staged a fierce comeback, winning the next two games and forcing a deciding game. On hand for that contest was Castro, who, as the story goes, made his way out to the Minneapolis bullpen before the game, eyed the opposition, patted the large revolver he wore on his hip, and said, simply, "Tonight, we win." Havana did indeed win that night, in spectacular late-inning fashion and, it is believed, without any help from the Millers, although they were only too glad to get the hell out of Cuba.

The well-publicized episodes marked the beginning of the end for professional baseball on the island. The following year, halfway through the 1960 season, the International League, claiming it could no longer guarantee the safety of its players inside Cuba, relocated the Havana franchise to Jersey City, New Jersey, where it quickly withered and died. The Cuban League, in existence since 1878, outlived the Sugar Kings by only a few months, folding after the 1960-61 season. Cuban-born Ivan Davis, who played for Almendares during that final campaign, and who would eventually distinguish himself as an umpire in postrevolutionary amateur Cuban baseball, says the end of the professional league came as no surprise. "Almost everyone realized it would be the last season for those teams," remembers Davis. "The following year, all professional sports were outlawed."

By that time, however, Lopez was pitching exclusively in Mexico during the summers, with an occasional few months of winter work in places like Nicaragua, where he played briefly in 1963. The last few seasons took their toll on his arm and his lifetime record. He lost more often than at any time in his career. Indeed, he lost much more often than he won. He was traded in 1964 from Puebla, a good Mexican League team that would finish only three games out of first place, to Monterrey, a sixth-place team. He didn't pitch well for either. And then, because he would soon be 38 and because he knew the little bit of magic he had once had in that right arm was gone, he quit.

He had a wife and daughter. Responsibility, exile, and, for the first time, nonbaseball labor beckoned. He didn't have the connections some former Cuban major-leaguers enjoyed. Nor, up until now, had he missed them. "I never worked [at any other job] while I played ball," he says with satisfaction. "I built a couple of houses and some apartments in Havana and made my money that way." The properties, though, had been confiscated by Castro.

So in 1964 the ex-baseball star took a job as an inventory clerk at a food warehouse in Dania. "They would bring lobster, crab, beef, vegetables, produce, whatever, and we would sort it out and send it to the restaurants in the New England Oyster House chain," he remembers. "All to make a lousy dollar an hour. It seems crazy that people would work for so little, but we did." He would work there for the next twenty years. Co-workers wondered what it had been like to play baseball in front of tens of thousands of people, asked about games they had seen him pitch in Cuba, and told their friends they knew Vicente Lopez, the ballplayer -- "el pelotero."

At 40, Lopez found himself in the same position as many of his Cuban ballplaying contemporaries: exiled in Miami, his career over, with little opportunity to exploit his previous fame. Joe DiMaggio shilled for New York-area banks and sold coffee makers. Ted Williams hawked sporting goods for Sears and Roebuck. What could Vicente Lopez -- who, on the island of Cuba, had been as well-known as those players -- do?

In 1970 he started Los Cubanos Libres. At the time, recalls Lopez, there was only one other venture like it in Miami, the Latino American Baseball Academy, which had been founded by Carlos "Patato" Pascual, brother of Minnesota Twins star Camilo Pascual and himself a veteran of both the Cuban League and the major leagues.

Lopez operated the academy with the help of other former Cuban ballplayers, among them Moreno, Sandalio Consuegra (a star pitcher in Cuba and, briefly, in the majors), and Ray Blanco. The business was an instant success. Cuban exile parents who had grown up marveling at the feats of Lopez, Moreno, and the academy's other coaches eagerly signed up their children, hoping the old pros might make big-leaguers out of them. "We had 200 kids," exclaims Lopez, thinking back to the academy's early days. "Every team would play a double-header." [page]

One of those kids was Rafael Palmeiro, the Texas Rangers slugger who, at the beginning of this major-league season, is only 53 home runs shy of 500 for his career. "I played for Vicente in the early Seventies," recalls Palmeiro, talking on a cell phone from the Rangers' spring-training facility in Port Charlotte. "I started when I was about nine," he says, nostalgically, "and played until I was twelve or so. Right near Edison High, on that field just off I-95."

Lopez has followed his onetime pupil's career. "We were all so happy when he was signed to a professional contract," he says. "He's a tremendous hitter. You know the only reason he's not a superstar? He's too quiet. He'll hit a home run, round the bases with his head down, and go back to the dugout." Lopez smiles. It isn't a criticism.

"Look, it's Vicente!" screams the small group of eight-, nine-, and ten-year-olds gathered at Riverside Park in Little Havana for the weekly Saturday-morning game between Havana and Almendares. It's Lopez's first visit to the park in almost seven weeks. Dressed in a pair of black slacks and a short-sleeve sport shirt, he steps gingerly behind his walker, a collapsible device he's been learning to navigate (in a few days, he will have ditched it). "Oye, Dormilón," he calls out to one of the late arrivals, referring to the small, slender boy by his nickname, "Sleepyhead." The boy covers his face with his glove in mock shame. A few old men, regular spectators from the neighborhood, spot the ailing ballplayer and cross the street to say hello.

Lopez surveys the field. There won't be enough players for a regulation game today, so the kids will have to settle for an improvised contest in which adults pitch and catch. Enrollment at the academy is more diverse than it once was: All the children are Hispanic, but not exclusively Cuban anymore, and there's even a girl. It's also smaller than it has ever been. Some children stopped coming during Lopez's illness. But the pitcher-turned-teacher says the trouble started even before that, when rival academies raided his talent pool and stole away his players. He won't mention the culprits by name, but the subject angers him. "You would have never seen something like that years ago," Lopez observes. "The guys who ran [the various schools] were different. They had played together. They were men."

In Lopez's absence, a few of the parents have stepped in, trying to hold the academy together, until its founder and only employee feels well enough to return. For the past two months, Norma Alvarez, a language interpreter whose grandson plays in the academy, has been coming to Riverside Park six days a week, keeping score and offering encouragement to the ragtag squad of Reds and Blues. "Listen to me," she implores when their minds and bodies wander from the game, "Vicente is going to get a report on how each of you is doing!" She isn't the only one who misses Lopez's presence. "That's one of the poorest areas in my district," says City of Miami Commissioner Joe Sanchez, whose office recently responded to Alvarez's complaint of insufficient nighttime lighting on the field. "I'd much rather know the kids are there, playing baseball, than on the street, getting into trouble."

Lopez would like to get back as soon as possible. He misses prepping the field, throwing batting practice, and umpiring. Friends tell him to take it easy. But don't they know? Vicente Lopez has never liked taking himself out of a game.

Philip John Clapp should be smiling. He's the star and producer behind Jackass the Movie, one of the hottest films in America right now. In just the past two years Clapp has transformed himself from a struggling Hollywood actor whose career peak was a Bud Ice commercial into Johnny Knoxville, an internationally known cultural icon.

Tell it to someone else.

Seated at a lunchtime table at Preston's, in South Beach's Loews Hotel, the 31-year-old Knoxville is the living embodiment of haggard. Operating on only a few hours of shuteye, he's sporting a scruffy beard, a baseball cap, and aviator sunglasses, which do little to mask the effects of an all-night Washington Avenue bar crawl.

"What do I want next?" he repeats aloud, removing his sunglasses to rub his bloodshot eyes. "I wanna get some sleep."

The conversation is taking place the day before Jackass's opening, and the film's executives at MTV Films and Paramount have Knoxville on a grueling promotional schedule, from crack-of-dawn radio appearances to lunch meetings like this one. Not that he's complaining. "It's pretty brutal," he sighs, "but compared to digging a ditch, I'd rather do this."

To be sure, Knoxville's ditch-digging days are long gone. He now reportedly commands a cool one million dollars per film, snagging roles in such blockbusters as Men in Black II because studio executives believe his devoted fans will seek out any feature in which he appears.

And he's instantly recognized in public, whether it's at a chic Los Angeles nightspot, here at Preston's, or inside his favorite Miami Beach haunt, the decidedly gritty Mac's Club Deuce. Still, it's an odd kind of fame. "Girls will throw lit cigarettes at me," he says, shaking his head in wonder. "I've had girls come up to me at the Deuce and say, Oh, I love your show!' Then they haul off and hit me in the mouth."

Pretty bizarre. But then Knoxville's Jackass is a pretty bizarre phenomenon. When it first began airing on MTV in October 2000 as a 30-minute program, Knoxville and his crew of skate-punk pals took both reality programming and gleeful masochism to new levels. The cast included 28-year-old Steve-O, who left the University of Miami after a single semester for the more academically intriguing Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College; Bam Margera, 23 years old, a professional skateboarder; and 28-year-old Chris Pontius, usually clad in nothing but a leopard-print thong -- all acting like, well, jackasses.

Episodes would feature these characters flying off their skateboards into walls, shooting each other with stun guns, immersing themselves face-first in tanks of stinging jellyfish, sitting inside a much-used Porta-Potty as it is flipped upside down, and re-creating Cool Hand Luke's hard-boiled-egg-eating contest with predictably messy results. Unsettling? At times. Squirm-inducing? Oh yeah. And also very, very funny.

Jackass quickly became MTV's top-rated show (prior to The Osbournes), but it wasn't just Americans who were tuning in. MTV's various foreign channels began showing a subtitled Jackass and garnering a similar response. "The show is huge in Latin America," says Linda Alexander, MTV Latin America's senior vice president of communications. Alexander is at something of a loss to explain Knoxville's south-of-the-border appeal, but she does know how to utilize his crossover potential. That's the reason Knoxville was a featured presenter at the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards Latin America, held at the Beach's Jackie Gleason Theater last month.

But Knoxville's appearance on the awards show wasn't just an enticement for Latin viewers; it also was a draw for the American audiences Alexander hoped would tune into the show's domestic broadcast on MTV proper, looking for the star amid the Spanish-language ceremonies and the unfamiliar bands.

Knoxville himself is loath to deconstruct his worldwide attraction: "It says more about them than it does us." Prodded to elaborate, he shrugs, "All around the world people love to see you get half-naked and wrecked. It's pretty universal. You could show Jackass without dialogue most of the time. If you run into a wall and fall down, people laugh."

As for the so-called Latin music revolution he's been roped into, in his mind it's nothing more than a free trip to Miami. "They told me what award I was presenting, but I wasn't paying attention," he laughs.

That much was clear during the actual awards show. To thunderous applause Knoxville and fellow Jackass members Ryan Dunn and Jason "Wee Man" Acuña strode out to the podium, abandoned their mangled try at reading their Spanish lines off a teleprompter, and simply raised their arms in triumph. The show's emcee then placed a boombox near the microphone and played a phone message from Chilean rockers La Ley, who apologized for being stuck at the Dallas airport and missing the event. Just off-mike, it sounded an awful lot like Dunn muttered into Knoxville's ear: "Why didn't we think of that?" [page]

In any case, Knoxville was willing to be a team player and oblige MTV producers with some promotion, as long as they realized that in a few weeks this whole ride would be over.

"Jackass is done," he says emphatically. "This is it." No more golf-cart bumper cars, no more strapping bundles of bottle rockets to his roller skates for a Wile E. Coyote effect. There will be no Jackass 2. From here on, Knoxville will only be taking movie roles that actually involve -- gasp -- serious acting, such as the forthcoming Grand Theft Parsons, a biopic of the legendary country-rocker Gram Parsons.

"The stuff I've done so far is shit," he freely admits of his parts alongside Will Smith, Tim Allen, and Rene Russo in such major studio efforts as Men in Black II and Big Trouble. "The first two or three films I took, I was just trying to get experience. Now I'm trying to focus on the project."

And his prankster persona? "It's best to stop while people still want to see it, while it's still good," he muses. "Look at the Rolling Stones. People used to talk about them as the greatest rock and roll band ever. If they only would've stopped twenty years ago! Or The Andy Griffith Show -- first they lose Barney, then they lose Andy, and the show's still going on. What's the point?"

For the moment, however, people clearly still want to see it, and that has become the Hollywood business story of the season. Made on a shoestring five-million-dollar budget, Jackass the Movie was number one at the box office its opening weekend. With ticket sales still strong and more than $59 million grossed to date, the film is likely to become one of Paramount's most profitable pictures of the year -- and that's even before video sales kick in. Meanwhile reruns of the television episodes continue to pull in impressive ratings on MTV, and the soundtrack is climbing the charts. Could a Johnny Knoxville action figure be far off?

"MTV knows I'm done," Knoxville insists. He corrects himself, his voice rising with irritation, careful to close any loophole: "They know we're done. At some point they might come back and say, 'Will you do a sequel?' And we'll say No."

That decision thrills Knoxville's wife Melanie, who married him several years before Jackass and who has never sat easily with the show. In fact their six-year-old daughter Madison isn't even allowed to watch certain episodes. "I never tell my wife what I'm doing because she gets worried," Knoxville explains. "I just go off to work, do what I do, and then come home in a cast. Or I call her from the emergency room -- it'd be great if they gave out frequent flier miles there." He begins rattling off a series of concussions, sprains, and fractures the way someone else might recite a grocery list. Still running down his injuries, Knoxville casually adds, "I got stabbed in a fight," but stops short while he gauges the reaction. "That wasn't anything to do with the show," he corrects. "That was a friend's bachelor party." Arching an eyebrow, he deadpans, "It was a really good party."

All this began very simply for the Knoxville, Tennessee native. After moving to Hollywood in 1990, the eighteen-year-old drama-school dropout tried his hand at acting, a Jack Kerouac-inspired stab at the Great American Novel, even a brief attempt at studying Eastern philosophy at community college. It was while reading the newspaper one morning that he discovered his true calling. Police had subdued a particularly unruly criminal with a blast of pepper spray. Knoxville wondered: What exactly did that feel like? And wouldn't the answer make for a great magazine story?

The budding journalist was unable to find an editor who'd bite -- except for Jeff Tremaine, then heading the irreverent skateboarding bible Big Brother. In addition to writing about the pepper-spray experience, Tremaine suggested that Knoxville also videotape his handiwork.

Thus a star was born: Knoxville not only filmed himself receiving a facial blast of Mace, he upped the ante by strapping on a bulletproof vest and having an accomplice shoot him square in the chest with a .38 caliber bullet.

Not all the bits were violent, but self-ridicule was key. In one segment Knoxville visits a gym with a strategically placed dildo creating a pup tent in his sweatpants. A hidden camera captures the awkward reactions of those working out around him. The more Knoxville tries to make eye contact, asking for a spotter as he hefts his weights above his bulging pants, the more panicked the rest of the gym becomes. Sophomoric? Perhaps. But very, very funny. [page]

Commercially released by Big Brother, these videotaped gags quickly became underground faves. Tremaine's high school buddy Spike Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich as well as countless buzz-generating music videos for the likes of the Beastie Boys, Fatboy Slim, and Daft Punk, signed on as co-producer for a television version. A bidding war ensued and MTV was the victor.

Jackass didn't remain an underground sensation for long. By early 2001, its heightened profile brought with it controversy. Several copycat incidents grabbed headlines, in particular those of two teens who attempted to mimic Knoxville's "human barbecue" stunt, and suffered second- and third-degree burns in the process.

"It was made clear that the performer of the stunt was wearing a flame-retardant suit, that the stunt was dangerous, and that it should not be tried at home," MTV president Van Toffler said at the time. In the segment, Knoxville donned a "burn suit" commonly used in action films, tied on a pile of steaks, and then had himself rotisseried over a flaming pit. Nearly half the episode was given over to a stern-faced professional stuntman who warned how truly dangerous the act was.

None of this swayed Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a frequent critic of Hollywood's moral compass. In a public letter to MTV parent company Viacom, Lieberman accused the network of gross irresponsibility in not "informing viewers that the performer of the stunt was wearing protective clothing." The senator insisted that MTV either substantially alter or "cancel this exploitative and degrading show."

Despite its move to a later broadcast time, and the addition of extensive warnings after each commercial break, Jackass's youthful insouciance began to falter. A contrite-looking Knoxville opened one episode being solemnly interviewed by MTV News's Kurt Loder. He delivered a heartfelt plea to viewers that they not attempt anything they were about to see.

"We just lost all our momentum," Knoxville says of this period. "The way Washington came down on us, we weren't going to be able to do the show like we had been doing." He pauses, apparently still bothered by the memory, and then concludes sharply: "I quit. I was done." MTV only learned that Jackass's 25th episode was its last by reading Knoxville's frustrated comments in a Tennessee newspaper.

That would seem to have been the end of the Jackass story. But three months later Knoxville's phone rang. "Spike Jonze and Jeff Tremaine called me about doing a 90-minute version of the show -- just one nutty idea after another," he relates, growing visibly animated as he recounts the moment. "We'd get an R rating. It was wide open! The energy was so high because we could do whatever we wanted! It was PG-13 for TV, but this would be real R."

The project was approved with this sly comment from MTV Films senior vice president David Gale: "We're all going to hell."

Knoxville recalls a preproduction session in which he and his cohorts learned about the digital videocameras they would use to shoot the movie. "Oh, that poor bastard giving us a tutorial on working the cameras," he remembers. "We're sitting around the room punching each other, flicking each other's ears, giving each other wedgies. He just real forlornly said, 'All my life I've wanted to make a film, and you guys are making a film.' It was great! He was so bummed they gave the cameras to idiots."

Or at least idiot savants. "The film looks just as shitty as the TV show," Knoxville continues, "but the cast and crew all have a certain spirit. We're like a band that can't play our instruments well, but we mean it. We make mistakes, but we mean it."

The howls of protest over Jackass's leap from MTV to the big screen aren't coming from lawmakers this time. Instead it's the film critics and cultural pundits who are agonizing over Knoxville's box-office success. The Los Angeles Times's Manohla Dargis conceded the movie was often "embarrassingly funny," but added that "it's unclear why anyone would shell out money to watch a bunch of guys run around in their underwear puking up their guts and, in one explicitly visible instance, soiling their underwear." Moreover Dargis tut-tutted the film's inherent chauvinistic infantilism: "Did I mention that you don't see any women doing this sort of thing?"

A.O. Scott in the New York Times took a similar tack, comparing Jackass to "a documentary version of Fight Club, shorn of social insight, intellectual pretension, and cinematic interest." Yet he still had to admit that it provoked "a spasm of revulsion that mutates into shocked, involuntary laughter ... I assume no responsibility for what happens if you see this film, especially if you have a good time." [page]

The New York Post's Lou Lumenick dispensed with any ambivalence, calling it the worst movie of the year, a label exceeded only by Variety editor in chief Peter Bart, who termed Jackass "the worst movie ever." In a heated "open letter" to the industry his publication serves, Bart sounded a gross-out call to arms, warning that "the ratings board is going to feel the heat. The studios will buckle. Worst of all, the audiences out there may get turned off." Harkening back to the comedic golden age of Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder, he couldn't help but note that "from a technical standpoint, [Jackass] would embarrass even a freshman at film school."

Obviously Bart didn't take the time to quiz any actual film students. At Wesleyan University, recently deemed the nation's "hot show-biz alma mater" by Vanity Fair, the reaction to Jackass has been far from negative. "The very mention of the name Jackass reduces my students to giggles," reports Wesleyan assistant film professor Lisa Dombrowski. And yes, several of these budding auteurs have already embarked on their own Jackass-inspired film projects. Moreover, the Los Angeles Times' Dargis may need to re-evaluate her feminist critique.

"The film's opening weekend, I had more women who saw Jackass than men," Dombrowski says. "Part of the appeal is definitely Johnny Knoxville. He's very attractive -- if you happen to go for that Lower East Side hipster look. But there's also something exhilarating about watching people completely let loose of all their inhibitions, disregarding pain, fear, embarrassment, revulsion -- being willing to do anything. That's true whether you're male or female. You can get downright giddy watching these people in Jackass, even if you think it's really stupid."

For parents of Wesleyan students, perhaps wondering just what kind of film education their $37,000 annual tuition payment is buying, Dombrowski sounds a note of reassurance. "Jackass is the type of movie that's easy to dismiss," she explains. "You just say it's stupid, it's gross, there's no plot, it doesn't contribute anything to society. But the question you then have to ask is: So where's the appeal coming from? Why do I find this so funny? What makes it comedic? These are the same type of questions that we ask of comedies by Sturges or Chaplin."

Back at the Beach's Loews Hotel, Knoxville's gaze turns in the direction of nearby Ocean Drive. That street has been the site of several of Jackass's more inspired stunts, particularly one in which Knoxville played an absent-minded father. Loading up his SUV with luggage, he would temporarily place his infant child (a doll) -- buckled inside a car seat -- on the SUV's roof. Then, preoccupied, he'd slowly drive away. A hidden camera would capture startled diners at Ocean Drive's sidewalk cafés, jumping up from their tables and racing after Knoxville, screaming in alarm for him to stop. Cruel? Yes. And hysterical to watch.

"We try not to make asses out of people," Knoxville explains, cracking himself up at the memory. "Ninety-eight percent of the time we want the joke to be on us -- but the baby on top of the car was so funny we had to do it."

There's just something about Miami that brings out this spirit, as with the bit in which Knoxville would bait a fishing line with a dollar bill, cast it in front of the Miami Art Museum, and then let the film roll as passersby made a mad dash for the money. He'd begin reeling the bill in, and sure enough the mark would chase it down Flagler Street every time -- until he came face-to-face with Knoxville, doubled over with laughter.

So was this a Chaplin-esque comment on the nature of art and money? Knoxville rolls his eyes: "I don't intellectualize what we do, why we do it, or how people perceive it." He smirks and wags a finger, chiding, "That's your job. From the first episode, we just wanted to make ourselves laugh, and that's the way we ended it."

Besides, there's a more pressing matter before him. He holds up his right hand, staring in disbelief at the bright blue circle jaggedly tattooed there. The logo is that of the late-Seventies punk outfit the Germs, the result of last night's whiskey-soaked visit to a South Beach tattoo parlor. It's not that he doesn't love the Germs -- self-mutilating, drug-overdosing singer and all. It's just that the uneven circle looks more like a jailhouse tat than the work of a professional. "This was a pretty good idea, huh?" Knoxville cringes, flexing his fingers. He gently touches the circle and grins: "Oh well, there's no going back now." [page]

Mama Jennie's
Aran S Graham
The birthday dinner's entrée had been prepared especially at the request of the honoree, a tri-coastal sophisticate who divided his time among Toronto, Miami, and the French Riviera. But all six guests plus the host qualified as educated and experienced international eaters, vera cucina italiana on top of most everyone's list. We were all anticipating, with great delight, tonight's main course.

Our host plonked a huge steaming platter, piled high with red tangles, in front of the birthday boy. "Ahhh," he beamed, inhaling. "Spaghetti and meatballs!"

Try to order spaghetti and meatballs in Italy, as we did on my partner's first trip to Rome in the early 1970s, and the likely response will be a blank stare. The confusion continued even after she tried the Italian word for meatballs, because while polpettine do exist in Italy, they are far from a national dish; hamburger is mostly served in the south, where beef has historically been tougher. Even there meatballs are served more often with simple last-minute pan juice/wine reductions than tomato sauce. And mainly they are not served on spaghetti. In Italy spaghetti and other pastas, as well as risottos and soups, are primi (first courses); meatballs, along with other meats and fish, are secondi (second courses). Spaghetti and meatballs is not a dish that, these days, is likely to be found even in an authentic Italian restaurant in the United States, much less in Italy. It's the province of Italian-American eateries, or translated into the slang of my native regione, New Jersey, "red sauce joints." And Mama Jennie's is a classic of this genre.

"Red sauce joint" may sound pejorative but it's not meant as an insult. Most sauces are indeed tomato-based in these restaurants, but when red sauce-style stuff is prepared with skill and with love, everyone loves it -- except terminal food snobs. It's tasty and, just as important, it's comfort food, particularly for baby boomers since it was the only "Italian food" of our childhood years. With South Florida's current Italian-restaurant-to-resident ratio running at an estimated one-to-one it's hard to remember, but when Mama Jennie's first opened 26 years ago, pasta was considered an exotic food. The word wasn't even commonly used. In a 1918 edition of the Fannie Farmer cookbook, "pasta" isn't in the index; the body of the book devotes two sentences to "spaghetti." The 1964 Joy of Cooking had progressed to the point of titling a chapter "Cereals and Pastas," but the pasta section's subhead reverts, to the relief of U.S. homemakers, to American language: "About Spaghetti, Macaroni and Noodles." And most of the recipes were for All-American dishes. Macaroni and cheese. Tuna-noodle casserole. To make Italian spaghetti, the Joy advised, one should use a can of condensed tomato soup ... added to canned spaghetti.

In contrast, the spaghetti at red sauce joints seemed wondrously foreign. For one thing, the noodle was, well, long. One of the most popular period sitcom visual jokes, in fact, revolved around All-American persons, on first visits to "Italian" restaurants, trying to deal with the hysterically weirdo Italianesque concept of winding lengthier-than-canned-spaghetti strands on a fork. Ha ha ha ha ha! Red sauce-joint spaghetti likely wasn't imported from Italy, cooked al dente as in Italy, or embellished with Italy's typical barely cooked yet intensely flavored sauces. But as today's prima champion of la vera cucina, Lidia Bastianich, says, truly good Italian-American food isn't inferior, just different, "the crowning glory of the Italian immigrants' struggle to adapt."

Take Mama Jennie's spaghetti and meatballs. The meatballs are a masterpiece! On my last visit, as always, they were savory despite light spicing, holding together perfectly despite light texture. Italian? Well, arriving with little money and soon running into the Depression, America's original turn-of-the-century Italian immigrant cooks stretched their expensive hamburger by mixing in cheaper eggs and breadcrumbs and plopping the balls on pasta. As for Mama J's thick, sweetened spaghetti sauce, that's also typically Italian-American; immigrants 100 years ago, after all, were even less likely to encounter perfectly vine-ripe, naturally sweet and flavorful plum tomatoes than Miamians are today, so they'd add flavor-intensifiers -- sugar, tomato paste, extra spices -- and cook sauces extra-long to add intensity. And Mama J's tomato sauce is certainly cooked-down tomatoey (though diners desiring even a hint of heat should bring their own Tabasco). Tip to big eaters: Mama's meat sauce is even more concentrated than that on the spaghetti and meatballs -- and spaghetti with meat sauce is all you can eat for $6.95. And those not in the mood for red sauce should know that, strange though it may sound, the balls go great with what always was the classic red sauce joint's one white sauce offering, spaghetti with garlic and oil (also available at Mama J's with broccoli).

Mama J's veal marsala is also perfectly Italian-American, rather than Italian. In Italy the dish is most often sautéed flour-dredged veal sauced with a light natural reduction of pan juices and marsala. Mama J's version has, besides meat, a ton of fresh mushrooms and an almost pot roast-rich thickened brown gravy. And it's just as good as a pot roast, too. Enhanced, perhaps, by half carafes of quite drinkable burgundy for $5.75, and pitchers of beer for $3 (small) and $5 (big).

All entrées come with soup (hearty minestrone) or a hefty dinner salad with mixed lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, pickled peppers, brined olives, and choice of dressing (creamy Italian's good; vinaigrette with crumbled bleu cheese is worth the extra 50 cents), plus some knockout garlicky rolls.

With the recent explosion of authentic Italian wood-oven places that produce pizzas thin enough to practically see through, it's hard to find the tasty nonchain normal pizzas we grew up eating, but Mama J's has them. Despite the medium-thin crust's lack of wood/charcoal blistering, its oiled golden-brown surface was nicely crisp. And pies are cheap enough that one can get 'em loaded -- though the only truly required toppings, to my taste, were fresh garlic and extra cheese.

There are many desserts, including key lime pie, but we ordered what was usually the only dessert choice pre-1970: spumoni. This frozen concoction of nuts and candied fruits in layers of (most traditionally) chocolate, pistachio, and cherry ice creams is even more absent from current menus in Italy than spaghetti and meatballs. But it was very fashionable in the late 1800s, so, like a sort of passed-down-through-generations edible oral history, it still rules at red sauce joints. Vanilla was subbed for cherry but the spumoni was, as it should be, sliced (so all layers were festively visible), not scooped. Tiramisu? Fuhgeddaboutit.

Also forget, if you're seeking an authentically stress-relieving and emotionally satisfying experience, about things like the spotless white tablecloths of today's fancy "authentic" Italian restaurants. Our fabulously friendly waitress's red sauce-spotted white shirt (which perfectly matched the roadhouse-red walls) was the kind of authentic you want in a red sauce joint. And for goodness' sake forget all those "f" words -- like "formal," "fine dining," or "fashionable." Remember words like "simple," "cheap," "megaservings," "welcoming," "warm" ... and, especially, "mama."

Who would have guessed that 31 years after M*A*S*H, the film that made Robert Altman's reputation, he would still be turning out movies as good as his latest release, Gosford Park? Full of the director's usual energy, powered by the sense of controlled chaos that marks all of his ensemble films, Gosford Park also finds the quintessentially American director completely at home in the alien milieu of England in 1932. Ironically his last sally into a European setting, 1994's fashion-world satire Prêt-à-Porter, was one of the low points of his filmography.

In form Gosford Park lies in the tradition of innumerable old movies (including many adapted from Agatha Christie) in which a group of people, all with their own agendas, is thrown together in an isolated country house; a murder occurs, and a savvy detective must figure out who, out of the several guests with strong motives, actually committed the crime. As usual Altman is less concerned with crafting a perfect example of the genre than he is with examining the genre itself. Neil Simon already did the ultimate parody of this stuff in the 1976 Murder by Death (in which Maggie Smith, one of the stars of Gosford Park, also appears); Altman's approach is not so much a satire as a reimagining of the genre's conventions, with the class elements emphasized.

Like M*A*S*H, Nashville, Short Cuts, and numerous other Altman projects, Gosford Park drops the viewer into a complex, frantic situation with no clear-cut protagonist to cling to. The closest the film comes to a central character is Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), a demure young maid accompanying her aged employer, the snobbish Lady Trentham (Smith), for a weekend party at the summer house of crusty Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), whose cold-hearted wife, Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), is Lady Trentham's niece.

Also in attendance are Sylvia's two sisters (Geraldine Somerville and Natasha Wightman) and their husbands (Charles Dance and Tom Hollander). In addition there are the McCordle daughter (Camilla Rutherford); Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), the real-life British songwriter and matinee idol whose persona Altman and screenwriter Julian Fellowes have borrowed for the film; and his guest, a Hollywood producer (Bob Balaban, who also actually coproduced Gosford Park) doing background research for the upcoming Charlie Chan in London.

If this seems intimidatingly complicated, be assured that you haven't heard the half of it. There are four more guests, whose relationship to the others continues to baffle me (after two viewings of the movie). Indeed two of them seem so tangential to everything in the film that one can only wonder if they are remnants of a subplot that was excised in the final cut. And we haven't even gotten to the servants yet, who are the real heart of the story.

What the servants in this world lack in money and power, they compensate for with ritual and knowledge. That is, while they know everything that's going on in both their realm and the "upstairs" world of their wealthy and/or titled employers, the latter know very little about what goes on "downstairs." Altman is careful to show us how the "downstairs" people are omnipresent, even as they strive to self-effacingly blend in with the woodwork. On one hand it is their pleasure and validation to serve; on the other they are completely aware of their bosses' utter helplessness without them.

Mary, new to service, functions much of the time as our surrogate, as the house staff -- butler (Alan Bates), housekeeper (Helen Mirren), cook (Eileen Atkins, cocreator of Upstairs Downstairs, to which the film clearly owes a debt), footmen (Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Swift), and head housemaid (Emily Watson) -- explain to her the insane rules mandated by tradition. They inform her that visiting servants will be addressed only by the names of their employers, effectively stripping them of any other identity; likewise, each will have his or her seat at dinner determined by the employer's rank.

This may sound like P.G. Wodehouse-land: Jeeves, who took the notion of valet's duty into the realm of genius, would have been at home here. But aside from Jeeves, Wodehouse was less concerned with the community of servants; nor would he have ever ventured anywhere near Gosford Park's concern with sexual matters, particularly the "class miscegenation" between the upstairs and downstairs folk.

If there is a problem with Gosford Park, it's that Altman seems so enthralled with the interplay of the characters that he's reluctant to put much energy into the mystery itself. The murder doesn't occur until somewhere past the midway point. And the "brilliant" inspector (Stephen Fry) is so totally imbecilic, so broadly portrayed, he seems to have wandered in from a different film altogether, quite possibly Murder by Death. Still, there is a payoff on the murder, one inextricably integrated with all the class interactions the movie has set up so carefully.

As is always his style in his ensemble films, Altman has his cameramen prowl around a set in which numerous events are unfolding simultaneously; he often seems to concentrate on the most trivial (if absorbing) activities, while the important stuff is going on in the background or solely on the soundtrack. It's a canny technique, particularly for a mystery: We never know whether the highlighting of certain things is important or not. When the camera adopts such an "indiscriminate" eye, clues can be dropped in without being obvious.

Altman's technique also allows his huge cast to act up a storm, in the best sense. Gosford Park has roughly half the best actors in England in it; in addition to those mentioned above, it also features Derek Jacobi, James Wilby, and Clive Owen. (American heartthrob Ryan Phillippe is in there too, and perfect for his role.) Much of the beauty of what the actors provide is not apparent on a single viewing; second time around, armed with foreknowledge of who these people are and what is going to transpire, one can perceive and understand numerous little expressions and reactions whose meanings weren't apparent the first time.

It really is amazing that Altman has endured this long, through all his career ups and downs. He is 76 now, and I can't think of another American director who has still turned out first-rate work at that age. (Hitchcock was 72 when he made Frenzy; Cukor, 65 for My Fair Lady; Wilder, 72 for Fedora, which was only first rate for part of its length.) If Altman's last effort, last year's Dr. T and the Women, was one of his most critically reviled films ever, Gosford Park should do much to salvage his reputation.

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