A very warm Saturday evening, in late mid-May, the culmination of an intensely busy & bustling afternoon in mid-town Manhattan, fire trucks, people, and ambulances everywhere you turn, and a 9th Avenue street festival, for several blocks running, comprising the now expected and quite ordinary “things” to consume – from the usual proliferation of imitation designer sun glass stands to middle eastern food vendors, lots of fast food, and lots of smoke, everywhere. Nevertheless, it is energizing to be a part of it all, on the way to dinner at a never-tried and seemingly not too widely known Turkish-Mediterranean restaurant and, following our pre-theater repast, on to a newly opened off-Broadway theater event at Theatre Row on west 42nd Street ... the final play this season for The New Group – a new play by the celebrated playwright, David Rabe.
Balkanika, at 691 9th Ave. (between 47th & 48th), is, really a combination restaurant, wine bar, and “market place” featuring very reasonably priced Turkish, Mediterranean, and Balkan (i.e., Serbian, Romanian, Albanian, Bulgarian, Greek) traditional regional cuisine. The menu is singular and extensive (just click on the pdf at the link to glimpse the wide assortment of foods, wines, and international & boutique domestic beers), the food is fresh, and the service staff and greeter are all very friendly, customer-oriented, and attentive. You can have everything from a chilled yogurt beet soup with dill, pignolia & garlic to a wide variety of meze salads & unique spreads (my wife, for example, had a plate replete with all 17 meze choices, and baskets of whole wheat pita, for $18., and, as such, functioning as her main course). You can explore a variety of chicken dishes (e.g., Chicken Turmerica, grilled with yellow curry, walnuts, honey, egg whites, raisins & cranberry, @ $10.); grilled salmon (marinated w/olive oil, dill & lemon, served chilled, @ $12.); all types of kebabs (we sampled the Lamb Kofte, with grilled ground lamb meatballs served with grilled tomato, a “hot” Albanian pepper, rice pilaf & a small side bowl of Turkish salad, @ $19.; or, my own choice, the spicy lamb sausage “served sizzling on a hot griddle” over sliced white potatoes & sliced green peppers, with Turkish pita, @ $11.
You might also consider choosing one of Balkanika's “specialties” – the Duck Confit (leg of duck marinated in wine & herbs de Provence, served with roasted potatoes & salad, @ $17.) or the Beef Sarma (stuffed grape & cabbage leaves w/ beef, rice & spices, furnisto potatoes & creamy yogurt sauce, @ $14.). Coffees – especially the Turkish coffee – proved sufficiently dark, rich, smoky & fortifying, while dessert plates, regionally inspired but a bit on the mundane side, consisted of your choice, at $5. or $6., of assorted baklava & kadayif, mini marzipan cakes, chocolate mousse with hazelnuts, or strained Greek yogurt & honey in a fruit & walnut parfait.
Indeed, you will surely remember the old-world feel to this unique theater district resto – the friendly atmosphere, the reasonable prices, the idiosyncratic Balkan wines by the glass ($8.-11., depending), the boutique beers ($5.-7.), and a palpable eagerness to satisfy the diner in every respect.
To my mind the David Rabe theater piece fared far less well. Two of us enjoyed the play – An Early History of Fire (I won’t burden you with the significance & derivation of the title; you’ll learn all about that if you happen to see the play) – and rather identified & empathized with, and understood, the various characters (including Danny, the protagonist), their mid-Western angst and boredom (it is 1962, and just a few years before the decade of the‘60s really begins to take hold), their stifled “conditions,” their hopes & fears (somewhat vague), their plights. I (and my wife), on the other hand, thought the play (the dialogue, the speeches) bloated and the characters, really, flaccid and without finely tuned presences, their problems real but amorphous, and their on-stage antics & interactions intemperate, even boisterous (disconcertingly noisy, overall!), and, well, ultimately of negligible value.
The play concerns itself with the daily lives, daily interactions, and loyalties (or lapsed loyalties) of 3 working-class young men – Danny, Jake & Terry – when Danny’s new girlfriend (a rich young woman on vacation from college in the East who has fallen for him, or his type, at least temporarily) enters their orbit; Danny’s immigrant father, Pop; Pop’s friend, would-be 2nd son, fool & foil, Benji; and Terry’s former high school sweetheart (now “turning tricks,” a prostitute), Shirley. Surrounding all of the on-stage (interpersonal) chaos we get reflections from Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye & other fictions (the thoughts & feelings of Holden Caulfield, the Glass family, Seymour, and so forth), Orwell (“Who is big brother?”), references to Norman Mailer, and some additional disaffected word-play loosely derived from Kerouac and On the Road.
So, what does all of this add up to beyond the theatrical miasma of a pre-60s, mid-Western “hell” out of which Danny must extract himself, with or without his girlfriend, Karen, and with or without his father’s, Pop’s, approval. And he must move to this other place, this other world, while writing, or, rather, learning to write!
The author of such highly praised plays as The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (his first; 1971), Sticks and Bones, Streamers, and Hurlyburly, Rabe has, over the past several decades, written a series of highly successful and award-wining (Drama Desk, Tony, New York Drama Critics) plays. An Early History of Fire, not very tautly directed by Jo Bonney, in my view, simply does not possess the full & cogent power of Rabe's earlier works, nor rank with earlier productions of his major plays.