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 ...

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