Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Chekhov & Yu ... Chef Yu, that is ...

Lately, it seems, productions of the plays of Anton Chekhov - Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters - have been proliferating on, off  & off-off Broadway like the  near-viral quantities of ennui, disaffection, self-satisfaction & bitterness packed in, and generated by, his most well-known, vividly articulated characters:  Ivanov, Vanya, Konstantin, the three sisters (Olga, Masha & Irina) themselves, Trofimov, Trigorin. And some of those productions have been quite solid, well-paced & well-acted ... with the possible exception of a fairly stodgy, slow-moving, flat, far too lengthy production of Ivanov (with Ethan Hawke in the title role) which we saw just just before it closed only a couple of months ago. Even film versions of the plays pretty regularly surface, the most notable, perhaps, being The Sea Gull, dating back to 1968 and Sidney Lumet's treatment of the play by the same name, featuring an absolutely stellar cast: James Mason, Simone Signoret, Vanessa Redgrave, David Warner, Denholm Elliott & Kathleen Widdoes (and well worth a viewing). And yet another film version of The Seagull in 1975, actually a filmed product of the "theatrical" event, also worth a look and also with a very fine cast - Frank Langella, Blythe Danner, Kevin McCarthy, Lee Grant & Olympia Dukakis - is available from Netflix. And then, in 1994, there was the curiously idiosyncratic Louis Malle film, Vanya on 42nd Street, with Wallace Shawn & Andre Gregory, wherein the Chekhov play in rehearsal (with a David Mamet script) transitions into the actual play as it evolves within the film.

Mr. Durang
But the latest - and by that I mean current - iteration of a Chekhovian play is not by Chekhov at all but happens to be a comedy (at-times-farce) written by Christopher Durang - Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike - which lightens up the general Chekhovian mood & atmosphere a bit by placing pseudo-Chekhovian characters interacting "in the present, in a lovely farmhouse in Buck's County," PA (with a lake in view!), rather than situating them, say, lakeside in the Russian countryside & presenting rural "aristocratic life" as it appeared to be lived in late-19th century Russia.  

So what we are given by Mr. Durang is, essentially, a set of contemporary Chekhovian character types, with similar degrees (both real & mock) of pain, ennui & disaffection, jealousy, rage, feelings of failure & stasis, all coupled with humor-laden lines to deliver as all kinds of familial & historical axes are being ground in this fluffy two-act drama!  Previously, Durang's play had had a run at Lincoln Center (last fall, I believe) and is now amusing what seem to be sell-out crowds (it just opened last week) at the Golden Theatre on Broadway, on West 45th Street, near 8th Ave.

Vanya & Masha
The acting is, for the most part rousing, raucous, interestingly subtle, and, all around, superb, with lots of verbal & physical (facial) humor - and with kudos going, especially, to David Hyde Pierce, as Vanya, and Kristine Nielsen, as the titular Sonia, here a step sister and brother so named because their now-deceased parents were academics who couldn't resist the fun, the humor, the dramaturgical ballast and pedigrees attached to these appellations.  The third sibling is Masha (Sigourney Weaver), a "world famous" movie actress who shows up at her family's home (she foots the bills) every so often to ensure that all is well and that her brother and sister have not strayed too far ... even after the death of the parents who they cared for during their final years.  
Sonia, as Maggie Smith (Ms. Nielsen)

Masha (a sort of bemused, befuddled, bully-ish but ultimately empathetic Arkadina) has been married several times, remains a successful movie actress, but has come to visit this time - along with a new "romantic" male bauble in tow, a young hunk named Spike - to apprise Vanya and Sonia of the fact that she intends to sell the family home because, she insists, she no longer has the spare cash to keep it, and the two of them, afloat.  In order to distract them all from the bad news and the possible displacement from their long-time home, Masha has gotten them all invited to a nearby costume party where she will "play the lead" character in her Snow White costume and the rest of them will be second or third or lesser fiddles.  Only Sonia demurs and refuses to cooperate ... which leads to her purchasing her own costume locally and going to the party as a Maggie Smith clone, an "imitation" in dress, voice & all.  And this decision - a small but emphatic rebellion -  metamorphoses into a wonderful monologue and wonderfully funny gag, resulting in a rich display full of Ms. Nielsen's bravado a la the (legendary) Maggie Smith, and providing an imitative set piece that simply breaks up the theater audience for the next few minutes. 

Without giving too much of the play away - all's well that ends well ... & all that - be on the lookout for Mr. Hyde-Pierce and his second act play-within-the-play ... and his ten-minute (+) long harangue at everyone but especially at Spike. He just about covers all the ills reflected in our current technological age (including our generally poor behavior & continually lapsing societal "manners & morals") in a speech which is verbally assaulting, linguistically robust & thematically cogent, and, in the character of Vanya, heartfelt, indeed! 

And Spike, for reasons you will find out if you decide to purchase a ticket to Vanya & Sonia et al., will be cast out by Masha ... and the family home will NOT be sold. Would that the characters in a (typical) Chekhovian drama ended up so hopeful, so stable ... so well!

Christopher Durang's Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike is suffused, in various spots, with Chekhovian pain & angst, but it is also full of mild intrigue and, above all, fun!

Chef Yu - Main Floor
Following the matinee, on the same cold & blustery March evening, we (next) trundled downtown some nine blocks to Chef Yu at 8th Ave. & 36th Street (tel. 212.736.6150) for  "authentic Chinese cuisine," primarily Szechuan & Cantonese. We had been scoping out the place for some time now as a possible pre- or post-theater dining destination ... and it proved a successful adventure. The resto is particularly spacious - situated on two large, commodious & airy floors, with comfortable chairs, couches & banquettes - and the wait staff is friendly, efficient & helpful. Best of all, though, the menu is very large, indeed, with great depth & distinctive dishes in all major sections. And there is a special section that identifies 16 or 17 of Chef Yu's Signature Dishes containing lots of entree-size (readily sharable) intriguing items. There are scallops, shrimp, whole fish, prawns, and chicken & beef & fresh bacon specialties to choose from, not to mention the interesting combinations of Mandarin, Hunam, Cantonese, Shanghai & Szechuan items spread all around the extensive lists of appetizers (hot & cold), soups (standard or large & filled with noodles), main dish platters & noodle dishes, as well as Cantonese BBQ plates - this latter category featuring items such as roast duck, roast pork, BBQ ribs, or BBQ "duo" combinations.

Hot & Sour Soup
Sliced Beef w/Shiitake Mushrooms
We each began our shared, moderately sized dinner with a popular small bowl of soup (each @ $1.85) - a tasty wanton soup, replete with freshly ground pork gently packed in several wantons ... exuding a mildly gingery fragrance that proved homey & perfect on the palate; and a bowl of hot & sour, with a nicely thickish consistency and a medium spicy-sour essence lingering in the mouth.  We moved on to the pan-fried dumplings (an order comprising 8 pieces for $5.95), crispy on their (at this resto) near-rectangular outside, and filled with tender ground pork & ginger flavoring on the inside, perfect with the bottled Heineken brew (@ 5.00 the bottle) we ordered throughout the meal (both "Heineken-lite" & normal).  Accompanying our main dish we selected (as we always seem to do) a bowl each of white and brown rice, hers & his! While the resto seems to celebrate seafood (shrimp, prawns, scallops, squid & fresh fish) done in all sorts of sauces &  in various guises - for example, a Chef Yu signature dish featuring "fresh fish fillet with fresh garlic," or another showcasing "prawns, scallops & squid with salted pepper - we decided on a plate of tender "sliced beef with bamboo shoots & shiitake mushrooms" to which we added a side of sauteed Chinese asparagus spears.
Szechuan Shrimp Dumplings
In sum, a very fine meal all around for our initial visit to Chef Yu; everything proved very fresh, cooked precisely to our specifications, delivered on time, and, the whole thing, with a couple of beers, totaled about $40., for the two of us, give or take.  Merci bien, Chef Yu; we shall return soon to sample any number of of other tantalizing dishes - delicacies in the seafood domain, or perhaps a plate of the "fresh bacon with green chili peppers" ...  or even a "whole fish braised with hot bean paste."  Whatever strikes our fancy ...

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Dance, dinner & an Oscar-nominated documentary

Cooper Union / 41 Cooper Square
St. Mark's Place
Every time we visit the East Village there are new "treats" to take in, whether a new building or two at Cooper Union or a revitalized St. Mark's Place now replete with noodle shops and sushi dens and Oriental eateries of  various provenance - Japanese, Chinese, Korean. All over the East Village there are new wine bars sprouting up, well, like mushrooms in a magical urban forest, and restos of every ethnic "flavor" & gastronomical challenge.

Two  Dancers in Black
Once again, we found ourselves in the East Village visiting La Mama and viewing a dance program at the Ellen Stewart Theatre (66 East 4th St., 2nd floor) this past Sunday, actually a threesome of featured programs in their "2nd Contemporary Israeli Dance Week" (March 7th-10th). The event, part of La Mama's "Beyond Borders" (Winter 2013) series, contained two dance creations - Prospect Minds, by Dana Katz & White Wash, by Gil Harush - performed live ... in the theater, and a third, Private I's, by Oren Shkedy & Dana Ruttenberg, shown via a black-and-white film. The latter dance (seen here only on film) proved the most interesting and accessible of the three offered in this Sunday afternoon program. The dance (on film) reflected a mixture of melodrama, slapstick, shtick, and two graceful, roguish  erotically charged male figures, performing in a far-off, Becket-like, mountainous-desert landscape (dusty, indeed!). The choreographed outcome proved light, a bit flaky, a series of near Laurel-and-Hardy-like interactions tinged with Godardian noir (think, if you will, Jean-Paul Belmondo meets Eddie Constantine) ... with kicks & slaps, hand gestures & knockout punches all melded together in a quirky (conceptually & physically) unified whole.

The work by Gil Harush - White Wash - proved excessively lengthy, relatively abstract in conception, and, in outcome, somewhat dry, cold & bloodless. Prospect Minds - choreographed by Dana Katz, who also performed in the program featuring two female dancers and a male - was the more interesting, entertaining & original of the two live performances; the piece was filled with tightly circumscribed movements and creatively geometric male-female & female-female interactions.

Dance - "Prospect Minds"
In sum, as a Haaretz (online) reviewer has noted, "a labor of love, dance and diplomacy," all working in concert, brought the Contemporary Israeli Dance Week back to La Mama, promoting & celebrating "unmatched" performances "from the heart of Israel's dance community" (an event enabled through the cooperation of the Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation Center and The Jewish Museum of New York).

Tapas Plate & Wine - Interior Table, The Barrel
Naturally, and according to our customary modus operandi, we had planned to dine right there in the East Village, as well, following the afternoon dance performances at La Mama. We had chosen a (first) visit to The Barrel, a wine bar and tapas restaurant (located at 10 Stuyvesant St., near 3rd Ave. & 9th St.) to which we will very definitely return ...  just a sleek, friendly & accommodating enterprise, with an extensive menu of fine foods, a mix of "contemporary" Mediterranean origins (notably Italy, Spain & France) in a variety of plate sizes, and an extended happy hour, even on Sundays.  Available wines - a broad range of reds, whites, sparkling, dessert, ports, Champagne, and so forth - also reflect, and couple well with, the contemporary European-Mediterranean milieu projected.  (Indeed, the "romantic" surroundings, they proclaim on their web site, recall the "highly engineered interiors" of a wine barrel itself.)

Needless to say (well, in this case, at least), the wines were unique & interesting, generous in quantity (by the glass), very fairly priced (again, by the glass); and the food, well, equally interesting as reflected by the various (and variously sized) tapas-style plates we selected.

Hanger Steak - Tapas Plate
We began our late afternoon (early evening) dinner with a happy hour selection of wines - a Domaine Houchart rosé (Provence; 2010) and a blueberry-pink & sparkling Casaleggio Spumante rosé (Lombardia, Italy; 2009), both about 1/2 price (under $5.). We then coupled the wines with a relatively large, but tapas-size portion of hanger steak slices & lightly pan-fried potato squares, in a light picante sauce (about $5.), which we shared as our appetizer. Simply juicy, tender & tasty ... an auspicious beginning. 

Eggplant Lasagna

For my main I ordered the Duck Confit Spaghetti, comprising pulled duck confit spaghetti with garlic, shallots, extra virgin olive oil & truffles ($12.), a simple & masterful concoction that certainly needs to be sampled again, in the very near future. My wife ordered a mixture of three small items on sliced baguette rounds (3 for $9.) from the "Pintxos" (in Basque, snacks, typically eaten in bars) section of the menu, including: shrimp scampi, in a "fresh" tomato-garlic sauce; mixed mushrooms, sautéed with herbs, shallots, white wine & butter; and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, with black olive paste & a cherry tomato. We supplemented all of the above with an eminently sharable (rather substantial) tapas size portion of eggplant lasagna, a grilled "eggplant ricotta," fresh mozzarella & a marinara sauce ($8.).

Dessert Tart w/Chocolatey Sauce

For dessert, we each managed a coffee - de-cafe & regular, both black, strong & robust. And we topped off this flavorful pan-Mediterranean meal with a large salty-caramel tart with an invitingly rich chocolatey sauce (coffees & dessert also at "mild" happy hour pricing). I should note, too, that daily "specials" (e.g., duck, beef, pork & vegetarian) are available and all items are priced moderately.

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While the recent Academy Award for outstanding documentary feature film was given to Searching for Sugar Man - a Swedish-British effort directed by Malik Bendjelloul - about the "lost" and reclusive Detroit-based folk-rocker, Rodriguez (see my October 15th post on this subject), resulting in a fine, entrancing film which proved well worth seeing, another Oscar nominee, in the same category and of equal or greater significance, if one can assign distinctions of this sort relative to a documentary's worth & value, is  Dror Moreh's The Gatekeepers.

The Gatekeepers is, in many areas throughout, a strident and forceful compilation of interviews with all surviving former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency whose activities and membership are (perhaps now, to an extent, were) closely guarded state secrets. In addition to the finely etched interview sessions, with the 6 talking heads (however dynamic they are), the director provides relevant historical footage in appropriate contexts which helps the viewer to recall and examine various "truths," political positions, governmental mandates, military actions & security necessities, as well as the Israeli politicians, generals & security staff involved during the period since the start of the 1967 war and the creation of the Palestinian "occupation."

Initially, Moreh was able to draft one former Shin Bet director (Ami Ayalon) to collaborate with him on the film project and Mr. Ayalon, the first of the six to be "recruited" by Moreh, was able to help him secure the consent of the additional five Shin Bet participants. Ultimately, the former Shin Bet heads all agreed to appear on camera while answering Moreh's questions without any preconditions.

Dror Moreh - Filmmaker
Ami Ayalon - Former Head Shin Bet
If you have any interest in Middle East politics, security issues emanating from that region, in the players, their deeds, the philosophical underpinnings, then Dror Moreh's assiduous & artful effort is a must-see documentary film for you.  What's proves most interesting - despite stated (& alleged) political beliefs, biases, national security contexts as they evolve - is that each head seems to agree (forcefully) that the Palestinian problem must (yes, must!) be resolved and that all Palestinian interlocutors and potential discussants - including Hamas leaders - must be reached to continue a dialogue toward an amicable resolution that provides Israel with safe and secure borders and safety from all regional enemies and ongoing terrorist threats & activities.  To this end, they conclude, as one unified group, that a two-state solution must be negotiated, must be sought, and must be found for the ultimate survival of the State of Israel and its people.

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A footnote: If you've never been to Connolly's Pub & Restaurant (121 West 45th; between 6th & B'way.) during Mardi Gras season, you've been missing a big, boisterous New Orleans-inspired evening of Zydeco music and dance, including the waltz and the two-step ... and a free dance lesson (around 6:00-6:30) prior to the entry of the featured band. On a Sunday evening in mid-February, we visited, once again (for the third time in as many years), rounding up all kinds of Mardi Gras festival beads upon entry  ($25./person), selecting an out-of-the-way table at which to sit and chat (while catching one's breadth, when needed), and purchasing a few draft beers which Connolly's offers in abundance. This time, we came specifically for the Zydeco music and the rollicking sounds of C.J. Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band.

Pub food of all kinds prevails, including traditional Irish fare (chicken pot pies, with vegetables, cream sauce, in a golden puff pastry; "bangers" & mash, with grilled Irish sausage, mashed potatoes & onion gravy); incredible giant lamb burgers with chipotle jack cheese & sweet curry sauce, garnished with large portions of thickly cut French fries; large & deep salads of all sorts & "classic" chicken parmesan pasta in tomato basil sauce; ginger grilled tuna, with spicy scallion mayo, tomatoes & greens on a ciabatta roll; New Orleans & Cajun food, from chicken & shrimp etoufee to sausage & crawfish gumbo, lobster corn chowder, oyster po-boys & Connolly's crab cake, with applewood smoked bacon, white cheddar, spicy  mayo ... all situated on a more than ample brioche bun!

C. J. Chenier
But the real reason for attending one of these NYC (local) Mardi Gras bashes is for the fast-paced Zydeco music itself (!) ... to catch the action, to listen & dance to the wildly insistent & reverberating sounds of the now legendary C.J. Chenier (son of the celebrated Clifton Chenier) & his indefatigable Zydeco-rocker band, par excellence. What a night ... the mood of every couple proved friendly & participatory, the dance floor was crowded (make that seriously overcrowded!) with enthusiastic dancers of every size & shape (dressed in straight & quirky "outfits"), including those in middle age, older folks & seniors. What an evening this proved to be ... the beads flopping & tinkling, the beer bubbling up & around & appearing just when you needed a swig to quench a sweat-plagued thirst, the whole bar & bash rocking to that earthy & inimitable pulsating music, and the band nearly insisting, yet again, that you can't sit down; yep, only one message to signal & receive at Connolly's that night: laissez les bons temps rouler ...