Zadie Smith and Colm Tóibín sparkle as they discuss each other’s fiction at Symphony Space

Colm Tóibín, Isaiah Sheffer, and Zadie Smith (Jason Diamond)
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One of the best things about an evening spent at Symphony Space is the booze. 

That's no disrespect to the quality programming at the space, but you can get a very reasonably priced cocktail before the show in the downstairs bar, then walk upstairs for an event with another drink in hand, something you can’t really get away with at many of the other Upper Whichever Side cultural venues (at least not on the cheap). 

But with every silver lining there is a cloud, and in the case of the intimate Symphony Space it's that when events go long (as they often do there), taking to the restroom can feel like a gaffe, not least from the grumblings of some of the older audience members forced to shift out of your way. Yet even after several cocktails there was no way it seemed prudent to miss even a moment of the readings of short stories and by two masters—Zadie Smith and Colm Tóibín—by actors at Symphony Space last night. Short stories don’t feel so short when you’ve worked the happy hour like a pro, but sometimes squirming in one's seat is the price of greatness.

At last night's Selected Shorts event actress Lois Smith tackled Tóibín’s “A Priest in the Family,” and Tony Award-winning actor Richard Easton read Smith’s 2004 New Yorker- published short, “Hanwell in Hell,” with both authors on hand to chat about their respective pieces before the story readings and, presumably, to lend moral support to their respective literary interpreters.

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At first glance, Smith and Tóibín couldn’t be a stranger pair on stage: She tall and youthful, wearing slim-fitting boot-cut jeans, a shiny red belt, black-framed glasses, and her hair in a red wrap; he short and slightly disheveled, his own glasses hanging down around his exposed neckline where a tie would normally be. But then the two started talking, and all those superficial things went out the window because their brilliance, and their obvious friendship, made for a special feeling indeed.

In his introduction, host Isaiah Sheffer pointed out that the two writers were, in fact, old friends. Just how the two writers came to be friends wasn’t mentioned, but the mutual respect the two have for each other was on display. Smith made mention of the love both her and her husband share for the particular story that was about to be read, and then she and Tóibín discussed the Irish writer’s fondness for the work of Henry James (about whom he's written extensively, most notably in his novel The Master).

Tóibín is a model man of letters: university professor, New York Review of Books contributor, multi-Booker-shortlister, and so on. He acts the part onstage, and often his comments on his own work and questions for Smith took a long time to unspool, but were always worth the wait. He talked about writing his own story after he saw American writers asking how they should respond to national tragedy after 9/11. For Tóibín, the tragedy he meant to confront was the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal. Lois Smith, who has been a Selected Shorts mainstay for over two decades, read it with passion dripping off every syllable. It is always a treat to see somebody actually act out a short story rather than simply recite it. Tóibín seemed so moved that he came out onto stage and embraced the actress for her work.

Intermission offered some of us audience members much-needed relief before another conversation between the writers, and then Richard Easton’s rendition of Smith’s story. Easton, a veteran Shakespearian actor, read Smith’s story with vigor and purpose. He utilized the pregnant pauses and put extra emphasis on the last letter of every word from Smith’s story (in the form of a correspondence) about a man and the daughter of another man seeking information about her father, who the narrator (or letter writer) spent a drunken late night with sometime in the 1970s. 

Smith and Tóibín returned to the stage, where they discussed Smith’s influences, Tóibín mentioning that he'd detected hints of Joseph Conrad in her story.

“More Graham Greene,” Smith replied. She went on to talk about writers like Kingsley Amis, and the generation of British writers who knew how to fleck their drama with humor, and vice versa. She mused about her own father, of the same generation as Amis, who though he wasn’t much of a reader was a massive fan of Lucky Jim, Amis' most famous work. They spoke about Smith’s comedian brother and waxed poetic about those who put their milk in the cup before their tea. Where Tóibín was mainly methodical as a speaker, working out his logic slowly and specifically, Smith was sharp, quick, and cutting, her hands half-tucked into her jean pockets, looking thoroughly at ease with her own intelligence and eloquence.

Smith and Tóibín spent a fraction of the time in conversation that it took to read their stories, and yet their shared ideas in dialogue seemed easily the equal of the fictional material presented, and that's no small miracle.