Monday, April 30, 2012

Dinner and a play – a night off times square

Nicky Silver’s acidic comedy, “The Lyons,” opened off-Broadway to great reviews last fall at the Vineyard Theatre; and, with the original cast in tact, has recently shifted venues to Broadway where the two-act play now resides at the Cort Theatre.  The play involves interactions between members of a, you guessed it,  dysfunctional Jewish family in which the father (Dick Latessa as Ben Lyons) is lying in his hospital bed awake and aware but dying of cancer. He is at “rest” in the hospital room surrounded by his immediate family –  the matriarch, Rita Lyons (played with near-strategic condescension and brutal “motherly” honesty by Linda Lavin), and, at various intervals, by an alcoholic, battered daughter (Lisa Lyons/Kate Jennings Grant), and a homosexual, borderline sociopathic son (Curtis Lyons/Michael Esper) who, we learn, tends to envision, only imagine, his romantic partners rather than actually (physically) have them in fact.  

The dialogue and laughs are fast, pointed, and, well, regularly furious in the first act, and Ms. Lavin’s lines throughout the evening are wittily wicked, pure savagery.  But, the second act (in two scenes) seemed, at least to this audience member, to be at once removed from, and somewhat disconnected to, the play’s  larger theme(s) and, really, played rather peripherally to the major subject(s) at hand.  Indeed, the two second-act scenes appear so much an extension of the action that they, together, might provide subject matter for a second play, or, at least, a sequel.  After a while, too, the bitter (at times menacing) dialogue and exaggerated gestures wear on you, the voices drone on, as each Lyons family member’s hang-ups, character “disabilities,” deeply rooted flaws pile up one atop another until you find yourself just waiting for all of this mishegas to end.  I won’t give that – the end – away; suffice it to say, the end is a bit unbelievable and hyperbolic, but, typical for Rita Lyons, rather victoriously unpleasant.

Overall, “The Lyons” is, likely, the very best full-length, family-based, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink harangue on Broadway since “August: Osage”!

Dinner prior to the theater proved considerably more pleasant – and very successful. We had switched our dining spot from a Mediterranean bistro on 9th Avenue to a location closer to the Cort Theater, between 6th and 7th Avenue, selecting the pan-Asian touristy spot, Ruby Foo’s, at Broadway and 49th. (We had eaten here on one prior occasion and found it tolerable, but with some culinary merit.)  This time, with a new head chef in the kitchen, or so we were advised, we found the food piquant, complex, and interesting … and the service friendly, patient, and calm for so large (300-seat) and so tourist-central an establishment. 

The four of us had a few appetizers, two mains, and three small bowls of brown and (sticky) white rice.  Our appetizers included simple but tasty steamed shrimp dumplings (at  $9.50), from the dim sum menu, and their especially enticing version of “Asian chicken lettuce wraps,” accompanied by hoisin sauce and “crisp lettuce cups”  ($11.).  The main (fairly large) plates were equally on target, equally intriguing:  a spicy beef udon with seared filet mignon in a fabulous tobandjan sauce (at $24.); and double pan fried noodles with shrimp & scallops in a tangy chili-garlic sauce ($22.50).  

We swilled it all down with both Hoegaarden (Belgian) draft beer and a fruity Japanese wine. Much to choose from at Ruby Foo’s, and in many categories, at this Times Square pan-Asian palace ... and recommended highly if you happen to be in the immediate area!

We moved on to the theater, stopping for strong-ish lattes and Italian pastries (including a very fresh, creamy, "white/white" cannolo) in preparation for an approaching, over-the-top theatrical experience, which, ultimately, the play – “The Lyons” –  turned out to be!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

An afternoon escape – piermont, ny ... on the hudson

There are bright, warm, sunny days every Spring that seem to beckon us toward more pastoral environs, away from the city.  And a couple of weeks ago we did just that; we journeyed from Glen Ridge, NJ to the village of Piermont, directly on the west bank of the Hudson, just below the Tappan Zee Bridge. Piermont is filled with art galleries, clothing boutiques, sculpture on the village square, and many restaurants … something for everyone.  If you stand at the river’s edge, along what the British call “the promenade,” and look somewhat east-northeast – and with the sun’s rays sparkling in the sky in the distance – you will see the silvery “main span” of the bridge linking Nyack to Tarrytown.  The site is inspiring, especially to someone like me, a one-time bridge-worker for the New York State Thruway Authority (working on that very bridge!) during a summer break from college many summers ago.

What also inspires is the fact that Piermont is the home of Xaviar’s at Piermont and Freelance Café and Wine Bar (sister restaurant to the celebrated and more formal Xaviar’s; walk-ins welcome, and no reservations needed for that early Sunday evening dinner).  Both of these establishments are owned and operated by chef de cuisine, Peter X. Kelley, and the two sit side-by-side right on Piermont Avenue, a quick walk to and from the river, and in the heart of the village.

Freelance Café and Wine Bar, the more casual (less expensive) sibling, is  touted in their own copy as an “excellent combination of American Cafe Style, French Bistro and Italian Trattoria,” ... and  [a] “Wine Bar [which] offers an exciting menu of small and large plates, allowing diners the possibility of tasting.” And so we did!

The menu at Freelance Café and Wine Bar is broad and deep and there is much to taste and choose from.  And wines by the bottle & by the glass – reds, whites, sparkling, and dessert – are simply too numerous to discuss here (see the web site for all food descriptions and wine details).  For the record we enjoyed a variety of interesting wines by the glass, both whites (e.g., a French/Alsatian Pinot Blanc) and reds (a Willamette Valley/Oregon Pinot Noir and a full-bodied Washington State/Cabernet Sauvignon), ending up with a wonderfully rich, delicate & fruity 2005 Muscat Rivesaltes (Vieux Chene/France).  Note:  the selection of wines-by-the-glass varies each evening.
Finally, just a few words (or more) about our most memorable choices for dinner:  Our shared appetizers, chosen from a lengthy and comprehensive list of “small plates,” included, foremost, a fabulous and intricate portion of "nuggets of sweetbreads & lobster in pastry with spinach & sauce Cardinale" (@ $13.50), and a nicely prepared "lump crab meat cake with sherry mayonnaise & small salad" (also $13.50).  Indeed, many selections on the list of appetizers sounded equally impressive … including the "Chinese steamed buns with pulled pork, Hoisin, pickled cucumber & scallions" ($11.50)!

Our dinner choices (“large plates”) were equally diverse.  Most noteworthy – and, by itself, entirely worth the trip to Piermont – was the “whole roasted Hudson valley duckling served for two," with North African spices, pine nuts, raisins & turnip puree ($27. per person). Quite simply, an outstanding dish … well prepared in all respects, with crispy skin and succulent, well-flavored meat … a very generous & satisfying portion in all for each diner!  Two other dishes we sampled and enjoyed included the braised short ribs of beef with a chili and onion crust accompanied by parsnip Mousseline & organic carrots ($25.), and the Maine diver scallops with a ragout of Brussels sprouts & chantarelles Madeira, steamed rice and green apple ($24.).

We concluded our meal with strong fresh-brewed black coffee, decaf, a few glasses of the Rivesaltes, and two desserts chosen from, again, a lengthy list of possibilities ($8. each, should you have room):  a chocolate pecan tart and almond tuiles with fresh fruit & sorbet.

Next time, I’ll opt for Xaviar’s famous "coupe aux marrons" …  C’est ca!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Odds & ends – in and out of the east village

This past Saturday night we (a group of four, that is) decided to make a pilgrimage of sorts back to the East Village, ending up at La Mama, at 74 East 4th St., which is currently celebrating a 50-year anniversary. 

We began the evening at Pangea, a restaurant at 178 2nd Avenue, between 11th and 12th, noted for “featuring a menu of American, Mediterranean, and Asian cuisine(s).” And, while the resto is not all that sophisticated, we had a very positive experience (a friendly and responsive wait staff, very reasonable prices, as much time as we needed & wanted at the table).  We dined on a few items that proved quite tasty – including an avocado-based salad with arugula (@ $8.); a generous portion of fried calamari with a chipotle pepper dipping sauce ($9.); a seared salmon filet in a sweet soy lemongrass vinaigrette, accompanied by organic red quinoa pilaf w/carrot, fennel, red pepper, and ginger (@ $19.); a sumptuous order of moules frite (PEI) sautéed w/wine, garlic, tomato & fresh basil, accompanied by perfectly done string fries ($17.); and a Moroccan “chermoula” chicken breast w/cilantro, lemon & ginger, served over a tabouleh salad of bulgur, tomato, and parsley mint ($16.). They list a few wines by the glass we deemed would pair well with dinner, including a fruity, medium-bodied Alsace Riesling, medium-dry & fruity Italian rose, and a Simonassi Malbec (each $8-9.) all of which we consumed at intervals throughout our meal.  You should note, too, that they also run a fairly diverse prix fixe dinner (2 items, including appetizer and main course) for $16.95, from 4:00 to 7:00 pm, daily.

For dessert, and to bring closure to the first part of the evening, we decided to walk down Second Ave. just one block to the Black Hound – an exquisite little shop filled with all sorts of baked goodies, most on view:  individual pastries of all varieties (chocolate-chocolate, coconut, hazelnut, almond apricot, pear almond, chocolate marzipan, chocolate Gianduja, “ebony & ivory,” raspberry-chocolate); cookies (perhaps 30 different items, from apricot sandwich hearts to raspberry spirals, chocolate hearts & chocolate almond meringue); and pies (how ‘bout honey peach?), tarts (chocolate or pumpkin pecan, apple ginger?), cakes (hazelnut espresso mousse?), chocolate truffles, candies, confections, and savory items (such as Chile cheese sticks).  Overwhelming to the eyes … and triggering off all sorts of sweet signals to the taste buds. We opted for two individual pastries (@ $7.50/pastry) – a chocolate, jelly, ground marzipan pastry with white chocolate crust (very rich, indeed!) and a chocolate-chocolate mousse cake (smooth and luscious).

We next drifted another block (or so) down on 2nd Ave. and shared these two good-sized chocolate “gems” between and among the four of us, along with three robust coffees and a chai (tea), while sitting at Starbucks.  We were then sufficiently fortified for the brief hike down to our 10 pm show at La Mama – Poor Baby Bree in “I Am Going to Run Away” – in The Club, their 2nd floor saloon-like venue ($10./ticket).

“I Am Going to Run Away” is a vaudeville-derived story-in-song created and performed by the uniquely talented player-songstress, Bree Benton; the show contains lyrics and music seemingly “scavenged” and adapted from the late 19th & early 20th centuries.  Although the musicians are solid and Ms. Benton performs some dozen (+) songs with considerable verve, elan, emotional range, linguistic acumen & vocal (period) agility, the show, as a dramatic, theatrical & musical piece, is simply not utterly engaging.  “I Am Going to Run Away” – which aims “to preserve and revive popular song and entertainment” from our vaudeville tradition – seems to me to succeed at, well, just that.  More important for me, however, the piece brought to mind the works and art of the inimitable Edward Gorey (remember The Willowdale Handcar, Or the Return of the Black Doll?).  And precipitating that kind of recollection – and that “discovery” – is, I suppose, enough!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A bit of news & information – from a few cultural spheres …

My old blog – – “closed out” in late 2011 … and the new one (this is the initial post!) begins where the earlier blog ended, still emphasizing New York Metro area culture, but with a somewhat circumscribed focus now:  culture “on a shoestring” … and, also, with “seniors” and their pocketbooks, preoccupations, and, perhaps, tastes and tolerances in mind.

Right now, as I write, new (and serious) offerings in the Broadway and off-Broadway theater worlds surface each week.  Many, of course, can be seen in previews, with sometimes, sadly, only short runs to follow.  And I tend to see a fair number of these – some for just, well, nickels on the dollar (see TDF and its offerings, for example, and the TKTS booth in the Times Square area, at the South Street Seaport booth in lower Manhattan, and in downtown Brooklyn).  Tens, if not scores, of plays, of every variety (comedy, tragedy, musical, Shakespearean, experimental, even “novelistic”), on and off-B’way, seem to be available … so there is, alas, something for you and just about everyone, at every price, even as low as $9.00 a ticket (with most offerings priced between $25. and $40. per ticket, if you are a TDF member).  

Indeed, if you are interested in finely honed, extremely well-acted drama – and who among us isn’t – two plays brought out last season and revived right now are, first, “4,000 Miles” (now running through June 17th at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center) which explores the relationship between a grandson and his 91-year-old grandmother upon the young man’s extended visit to her small apartment in Greenwich Village after a cross-country bicycle trip.  Yep, he brings his bicycle along with an excessive amount of familial baggage for grandma to deal with and help sort out. And second, there is Bruce Norris’s “Clybourne Park (now at The Walter Kerr Theatre on B’way), a multi-prize winning – including the 2010 Pulitzer – drama which began its life in runs both off-B’way and in a London production; it is a sensitive and linguistically strident, funny, satirical examination of a batch of interrelated social issues evolving gradually but surely out of class and racial differences, and, of course race-based “turf” (i.e., real estate). Contrasting the content of a first act set in 1959 (dramatized from within a white neighborhood (and white “dominant” perspective) with the content of a second act, set in 2009, exploring many of the same social, racial, and “real estate” issues from the same semi-urban location (much changed physically), but now primarily depicted from within a black “dominant” coign of vantage. The play delivers its various messages and thematic content along a slow, simmering, and subtle dramatic axis, ending up with the various characters – both white and black – articulating the still lingering (festering?) caustic and blatantly racist vocabularies (exhibited in varied  instances, anecdotes, jokes, riffs, and attempts  at real  communication) that have not really changed since the 1950s. Kudos to the fine ensemble cast which makes this play so rich, so subtle, so strong, so memorable.

Equally powerful, and perhaps even more so, is “The Columnist,” still in previews at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (opening on April 25th), featuring a masterful, tour de force  performance by John Lithgow as the volatile, arrogant, powerful, implacable DC-based newspaper columnist, Joseph Alsop. The play, with a superb cast all around, looks at Alsop from a multitude of vantage points – political, sexual, marital – and, of course, through the telescopic lens of his verbal dexterity and from various historical and personal reference points … that is, from just before the inauguration and presidency of Jack Kennedy to post-Vietnam Washington, DC, waist-deep into the power and influence of the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, and Alsop’s relationship to that power and to the powerful.  Stewart Alsop, Joseph’s brother, defender, and sometime foil (superbly played by Boyd Gaines), and Alsop’s wife, Susan Mary Alsop (acted with subtlety and strength by Margaret Colin), and the celebrated author-journalist David Halberstam (played by Stephen Kunken) all feature in the verbal gymnastics and dramatic intrigue.  You will not forget this new play by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright, David Auburn; you will not forget the scintillating production/scenic design, nor the finely tuned direction by Daniel Sullivan; you will not soon forget Joseph Alsop (amidst a spectrum of his political battles and personal struggles); and you will surely not forget this magnificent performance by a roaring and imperious John Lithgow. “The Columnist,” I feel certain, will prove the dramatic hit of the Spring theater season on (or off) B’way!

By the way, Joseph Alsop receives quite a few mentions in David Halberstam’s celebrated book about the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the Vietnam War period, The Best and the Brightest (New York:  Random House, 1972), and is characterized thus by Halberstam:  “[Alsop] was an odd man, sophisticated, talented, arrogant; his real talent and perhaps his real love lay not in writing about politics but about archaeology. If his political writing did not last long and did not read well years after, it was not a fault of his intellect, it was something else:  it was that Alsop was a man of Washington and its power, and he wrote to the power play of the day, he wrote not to enlighten but to effect, to move the principal players on [major political] decisions....   And in that sense there was a brilliance, for he had an unerring sense for the raw nerve of each player… (p. 499).

As you are undoubtedly well aware, author readings are scheduled every day all over the city and many of these are free, from appearances at book shops like Barnes and Noble (at numerous locations), to McNally Jackson Books (at 52 Prince St.), and The Strand on lower B’way.  Merely scan Time Out New York online or in the magazine itself for lists of daily (and weekly) details.  One additional notable venue where novelists and short fiction writers read and meet with their readers and other writers in conversation, is The Center for Fiction, at 17 East 47th, between 5th and Madison. The Center – housing a new and used bookstore and some quiet spaces for reading, resting, quiet chatting, and thinking – hosts a variety of worthwhile programs throughout the Fall and Spring each year. I just recently heard Louis Begley reading from his piquant new novel, Schmidt Steps Back, the 3rd volume in his Schmidt series, following both About Schmidt and Schmidt Delivered.  I just finished the first volume (a first edition, now signed by Mr. Begley) and have the 2nd poised on my cocktail table, ready to go.  You might have seen Louis Begley’s Op-Ed piece in The New York Times just a few weeks ago (“Age and Its Awful Discontents,” Sunday Review, March 18th), about aging and, well, its indignities … evoking the plight of the author (Mr. Begley) and his central character, Mr. Albert Schmidt (both now septuagenarians), and us all.

One major upcoming week-long annual author/literature event is PEN World Voices / Festival of International Literature, 30th April through 6th May.  Major and little known authors from all over the world give readings, serve on panels involving wide-ranging thematic topics, and share the contents (and forms/formats, experiences, hopes, memories) of their new work during both brief and longer interview sessions.  PEN festival events occur in venues all over NYC – from NYU to the Goethe Institut, from The Cooper Union to MoMA, from the New School to the Bowery Poetry Club, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Asia Society, the Brooklyn Public Library, Joe’s Pub, and many more!

And, finally, while just about everyone now knows about The Tribeca Film Festival which began today, April 17th, too few around the NY Metro area, I suspect, have heard about or attended the Montclair (NJ) Film Festival, beginning May 1st (through the 6th) with screenings at venues in town and on the campus of Montclair State University. Opening night, which might already be sold out, previews “The Oranges,” a film with Hugh (“Dr. House”) Laurie.  The festival is a small one, but presents broad content, with screenings of comedies, short films, dramatic features, student films, and documentaries.  You can, for example, see  a batch of new feature films, including Kathleen Turner in “The Perfect Family” and Nellie McKay in “Downtown Express.”  Interested in film?  It’s not yet too late to have a look …