Thursday, April 25, 2013

On & Along West 45th Street -- Orphans & the Ember Room
Lyle Kessler's darkly comic 1983 drama, Orphans, is back on a New York City stage ... and just now (April 18th) about to open on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (236 West 45th St) following a few weeks of previews and directorial revisions.  In addition, there has even been a relatively last-minute actor replacement -- with Ben Foster (in the role of Treat, the older "orphan"-brother) -- who has joined this talented trio of actors, comprising Alec Baldwin (dominating  much of the proceedings as the notorious Chicago gangster, Harold) & Tom Sturridge (a British import who plays Phillip, the younger brother). And, indeed, a fine ensemble these three men make on stage in this extremely harrowing play with emphatically delivered lines, in, predominantly, four closely drawn shades of ... bilious, bellicose, tortuous & tortured ... all around.

Cast Photo / Joan Marcus
You might know the O. Henry short story entitled "The Ransom of Red Chief, " a genuinely ironic, utterly comical-farcical version of a kidnapping situation gone haywire every step of the way. The two kidnappers end up paying a few hundred dollars back to the kidnapped boy's father (the "Red Chief" of the title is the only child of one Ebenezer Dorset, "a prominent citizen" of Summit, a small southern town seemingly perfect for their scheme). Dorset will, in fact, not pay a ransom; if Dorset agrees to take the boy back it will be on his terms ... there will be no big win for Bill & Sam in having snatched the loathsome boy to begin with; not the $2,000. they had insisted on in their ransom note, not the $1,000. they might have settled for, but just a payment they are forced to make to the banker father in order to get rid of a troublesome, sometimes treacherous, belligerent, impossible kid ... for good, for sure, for ever ... and escape (alive and in tact) from Summit & from possible prosecution!

Orphans is also rich in irony, but the irony here is dark & bittersweet and sometimes just simply brutal & bitter, and considerably more complex and subtle. The ostensible "kidnappers" are the sociopathic Treat (the older brother: a thug, a petty criminal, a loudmouth & a bully) and the intellectually stunted & emotionally occluded Phillip, a boy-man who can't read, can't figure things out, can't even tie his own shoes ... and can't leave the North Philadelphia tenement-like row house in which they grew up with their mother (who died or departed) and where (now confined) he simply watches old movies (he seems to know every Errol Flynn flick, for example) every day for fear that, if, against his brother's dictate, he goes out into the street, he will not be able to breath the external air, day or night, and he will faint or ooze oral or nasal secretions, or suffocate & die.
Photo / Joan Marcus

But soon, Treat brings home Harold who he has, he thinks, kidnapped and who appears to be a rich businessman with lots of accoutrements, lots of ready cash ... a prize middle-aged male specimen who Treat intends to, if necessary, brutally shake down. But Treat doesn't know Harold, at all; he doesn't know that Harold was (and still is) a big-time Chicago-based gangster with lots of old (real) enemies and  who was, himself, an orphan living among orphans. 

And thus, there will be no money exchanged for Harold -- everyone from Chicago is looking for him and wants to take him down ... to kill him but not buy him his freedom.  And Harold is no "Red Chief"; rather, Harold wants to change these two boys; tame them; help them; pay them well; and ensure them that he will have them working for him after a certain period of time -- of change, of growth, of motivation, of "training" (of sorts) in anger-management, and "civilizing" them (in terms of their conversation, clothes & food; and, also, in living in a more carefully re-organized, respectable & newly appointed apartment. 

The orphan brothers, having had Harold enter their lives, will , indeed, be changed for ever.  They will have a "father" and he will have "sons."  Phillip will become a friend & son to Harold and will be motivated by him in all respects  ... even navigating his way around Philadelphia with a map (he has rarely before been out of the house; he has never seen a city map!) that Harold teaches him to read & negotiate. Treat learns to work for Harold and, under his guidance becomes, well, what might be termed a "bag" man for him ... now that he is slowly becoming suitable for "serious" outside work on Harold's behalf. While Phillip seems to get on well & easily with this father figure, Treat remains somewhat angry & edgy and uncomfortable in his new role -- even with new suits & new shoes & the use of Harold's credit card -- and slow to adapt to Harold's "rules," manners, ideas, and work ethic, if we can call it that.

But this new "family" seems to be getting on a bit too comfortably to be believed & fully supported by Treat; he soon has a few  major "professional" & personal-emotional lapses that upset Harold ... and presently Treat will leave the apartment stormily because he feels he is being suffocated & subsumed under Harold's rule and Harold's business ... Harold's "plans" for him. To where, exactly, he goes, we are not privy ... but he returns after a while to sniff around the apartment and to find out what's been transpiring. But Harold is not to be found at home ... he is downtown ... and when he returns, well, the boys will be grieving once again over their new orphan status.

Orphans is well acted and directed competently by the seemingly indefatigable & omnipresent Daniel Sullivan.  The ensemble works seemlessly during the play's two acts.  Kudos especially go to Alec Baldwin for his fine performance as the Irish gangster, Harold But Mr. Foster and Mr. Sturridge must also be praised for their idiosyncratic & consistent character delineation as they each wend their way throughout the proceedings.

Orphans is hardly what you might consider an upbeat play & a happy theater experience; it is, most fundamentally, a dreary, depressing & bleak play, with some high notes in various spots -- e.g., within certain sections of Harold's speeches. These characters are not loveable; perhaps, with the exception of Harold, not even likeable; you don't identify with them. And the play itself -- as a whole work, unified & full circle -- leaves us a little empty, a little annoyed, with only minimal feelings of pathos, a bit upset, emotionally confused, shaken & off-balance. But don't take my word:  Experience this bitter comedy-drama for yourself when it opens ...  The play is scheduled for a limited Broadway run (through June 30th).

Ember Room - Exterior
In the very same mid-town Manhattan area -- just walk west a block or so on 45th St. from the Schoenfeld Theatre to 647 9th Avenue (between 45th & 46th; tel. 212/245-8880) -- you can dine reasonably & exceedingly well in the Ember Room, a "trendy Thai" resto specializing in what has come to be known in Bangkok as "Thai comfort food." The very talented chef, Ian Chalermkittichai seemlessly adapts a wide variety of "seductive ingredients" from "other culinary cultures" (notably Italy, Belgium, France, Japan & the USA) to those traditionally found in the Thai kitchen ... and the results that are offered here are luscious & delectable across the board.   

Ember Room - Interior
As one might anticipate, the menu is full of interesting appetizers, noodle dishes, soups, small plates,and entrees reflecting a great variety of surprisingly well-blended tastes, textures, and tidbits. One of Mr. Chalermkittichai's signature fusion dishes, for example (which we did not sample) consists in his own version of baby-backed ribs grilled with an almost "irresistible (according to our waiter) BBQ-smoked Belgian chocolate sauce (@ $7). Another special dish, a substantial appetizer, featured a succulently grilled Japanese eggplant, prepared with smoked salt, cilantro & red miso glaze (which we did, indeed, sample; @ $6). All four of us agreed that the grilled eggplant proved to be just, well, a singular item ... scrumptious, indeed!

Red Chili Sea Bass
Green Curry Lasagna
We sampled several other dishes -- small plate & entree size -- not to mention a side/ appetizer (twice) of the crispy chili-crusted 7-spice fries, with "ember" mayo ($5).  For dinner, specifically, we shared a few small plates and each of us chose individual ("entree") items for our mains. The appetizers we ordered included the grilled Japanese eggplant (see description above), the ember room spring roll (filled with vermicelli noodles, shitake mushroom, shredded cabbage, mozzarella & accompanied by a dipping sauce of spicy mayo; @ $6), and the 7-spice fries (also described above). One member of our party ordered -- and thoroughly enjoyed -- the green curry lasagna bolognese, with fresh mozzarella, parmesan & ground beef; @ $14). Two others at our table settled on the sea bass, though prepared behind two different culinary interpretations -- one (my wife) chose the crispy whole striped bass ... a whole fish with sweet/sour/spicy sauce & crispy basil (@ $22); a friend selected the waiter-prescribed red chili-glazed sea bass ($24), freshly baked, and featuring a sweet & spiced glaze, celery root puree & gailan (or Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce) ... a very tender chunk of sea bass which all of us designated outstandingI selected something I thought unique, or, at least, unusual: the Heritage pork belly ($19), a braised "block" of tender, juicy, sweet (fatty) pork belly resting in a shallow bowl of Chaing Mai (Thailand) spices, with root vegetables, Asian herbs & finished with fresh ginger. 
Heritage Pork Belly

All of these plates proved consistently fresh, unusually tasty & wholly seductive to our quartet of palates!

Citrus Layered Crepe Cake
We finished up with coffee (@ $3) and, as we were all pretty agreeably full, we decided to share a single dessert: a large slice of the Meyer lemon layered crepe cake, with lemon inflected gelato on the side ($7). Just enough lemony flavor to tingle the taste buds, and sufficiently intriguing (a bit of silky perfection with the coffee), to end a very pleasant meal & to cite the discovery of a new -- from our coign of vantage -- culinary gem.

Thai Style Meatballs
There were simply too many luscious sounding items (large & small) we couldn't even attempt to try, and that irrefutably piqued our palates, so we figure we'll return the next time we're hungry (and in the vicinity of West 45th & 9th) ... to sample a few more of Mr. Chalermkittichai's creations -- the Thai pastrami meatballs ($9); the Thai tacos (filled with shredded chicken, bean sprouts, chives, tofu, coconut & sweet chili sauce; @ $8); the red curry crispy duck (with lychee, pineapple, cherry tomato & eggplant; @ $18); the steamed "icy blue" canadian mussels (replete with lemongrass, spicy & sour bouillon & garlic bread; $10); the Thai chili mac & cheese (encompassing an unusual mix of thai chili jam, smoked bacon, onion, fresh mozzarella, parmesan & house-made breadcrumbs ($8) ... and much, much MORE!  

Hope to see you all some time in the not-too-distant future enjoying the unique Thai fusion cuisine at the Ember Room!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Poet laureate ... Paul Abler ... Pig & Prince

Death notices in the arts community, it seems, have been,, unfortuntely, pervasive this past weekend.  Much attention, understandably, has been focused on Roger Ebert, the popular film critic (and TV film reviewer) who has been making news during the past several years owing to his stamina, his personal  & professional persistence, and the outright strength he had exhibited amidst the various interrelated illnesses he suffered prior to his death at 70. There was also the death of the novelist/fiction writer (Heat and Dust, Out of India: Selected Stories) and screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who, in collaborating with the Merchant-Ivory film production team wrote numerous award-winning screenplays, including Howards End, A Room With a View, The Remains of the Day, and Mr. & Mrs. Bridge.  

Daniel Hoffman
But the death I most want to acknowledge is that of the poet, critic, essayist & scholar, Daniel Hoffman, my brother Robert's poetry (metrics) teacher at Swarthmore College during the early 1970s. Mr. Hoffman was, it must be underscored, a prolific poet who explored a variety of poetic forms & structures (simply see Beyond Silence: Selected Shorter Poems, 1948-2003; or Brotherly Loveand multifarious scholar-critic whose idiosyncratic study, POE POE POE POE POE POE POE (Doubleday, 1972; my signed copy, LSU Press, 1998) explored that writer in every context -- from the personal to the scholarly-biographical ... to the autobiographical (bits of Hoffman's own) -- and produced what Dwight Macdonald concluded is,, simply, a "delight," an "unlikely, indeed unique combination of scholarship and poetic intuition" and John Hollander suggested is an "informed and subtle" work, "a rather nutty ... [but] completely necessary book."

(Note:  It has been said, too, that Mr. Hoffman even resembled Poe, physically.)

Daniel Hoffman, who served as the United States Poet Laureate, during1973-1974, was the Felix E. Schelling Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, died at 89 this past Saturday in Haverford, PA. He had taught intermittently at Columbia & Swarthmore and at Penn for decades and was frequently mentioned to me by my brother as a masterful teacher, scholar-critic, and lyric poet.  His poem, "Today," is one of my favorite Hoffman (short) lyrics -- simple, powerful, touching, lovely -- which, I suspect, was written on the impact of the death of his wife, Elizabeth McFarlane, a poet & editor who died in 2005. Here is the poem, in full, as published in the October 2007 issue of POETRY magazine:

Today the sun rose, as it used to do
When its mission was to shine on you.
Since in unrelenting dark you're gone,
What now can be the purpose of the sun?

Were my brother alive today, I'm sure he, too, would want to acknowledge -- and memorialize -- the death of his former teacher, Mr. Daniel Hoffman. 

On a less somber note, I want to move to Montclair, NJ and a recent visit (one, of course, of many) to Trumpets / Jazz Club (at 6 Depot Sq., corner of Walnut St.; tel. 973/744-2600; operated, these days, by Kristine Massari & Enrico Granafei). Have you been?  Do you know this commodious Essex County jazz venue?  Trumpets, if you've never been, is a local club in the musical league, and tradition, of New York's Village Vanguard, the Blue Note, Birdland, Smalls, and Iridium. Indeed, during the past several years, we've seen (and heard!), giants in jazz at Trumpets ... the likes, for example, of Houston Person and Dave Valentin.
Paul Abler

This past Saturday (April 6th), Trumpets celebrated the birthday of the jazz-blues guitarist (and composer-arranger) Paul Abler who took center stage and presided along with a fine group of musicians, including: the inimitable Harvie S on bass; James Weidman on piano; Adriano Santos on drums/percussion; and Mrs. Abler, the talented Rio-born songstress Yashmin Charnet-Abler who did all the vocals, including a low-key rendition of the famous Carlos Jobim samba, "Girl from Ipanema ."  We showed up for the 2nd set when the mood grew festive, the band rollicking but still serious & "connecting," and  the club's hosts adding to the celebratory atmosphere with a finger-licking creamy birthday cake & champagne all around for a crowded, very near full house.  (Incidentally, Mr. Abler, who, apparently, does this birthday gig, well, yearly, insists that admission to the event shall be free; an "admission" to the party just required payment for drinks, service & tax.)

Trumpets  is a for-real jazz club, as many of you already know, right out here in the 'burbs ... providing a large, friendly & substantial musical venue and serving all kinds of food (a full menu!) and drink. And the club even offers (of late) a Sunday Jazz Brunch (11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.) -- just check out their web site for details and, also, for a calendar of upcoming musicians & events. In addition, the club has been hosting a fabulous (and not outrageously priced) New Years' Eve party -- with typically buoyant & lively music and dancing -- for the past few years which we attended this year with friends down for the occasion from the Boston area. According to my wife, probably the best New Years' party we'd been to in quite some time.  

So, for a consistently "major jazz experience," any day of the week, we'll see you soon at Trumpets in Montclair, NJ!  I can assure you that you'll be treated generously, as we always are, at this friendly local club: a very special place ...
Pig & Prince

And, speaking of special places in Montclair -- and keeping within walking distance right in our neighborhood -- we decided to head out this past Sunday evening, for our Anniversary dinner, to a relatively new local  restaurant & "gastro lounge":  the Pig & Prince (at 1 Lackawanna Plaza; tel. 973/233-1006). This restaurant, located in a refurbished Lackawanna RR station, is a physically & architecturally beautiful and imposing place to dine, what with, for example, the original features of the station's brick & tile interior and the exceptionally (!) high ceilings and muted but spectacular lighting. The bar is housed along (nearly) the full length of one of the inner walls and is stocked with a list of interesting & exotic beers, a large selection of all kinds of wine, not especially expensive choices, and a wide variety of mixed drinks (some unique to the Pig & Prince).

While mains (which change periodically) are a bit on the pricey side ($24. to $35.) -- for generously sized "from-the-forest," "from-the-sea" & "from-the-farm" plates (like roast Peking duck, pork tenderloin, roast venison & wild boar ), you can dine on any of the reasonably priced  "petite pizziette," pastas & risottos (these last are just melt-in-your-mouth fabulous judging from the duck risotto we sampled on our previous visit).  You can build on these selections with such items as pork meatballs or escargot (sauteed in "compound butter," crispy potatoes & egg yolk) or Prince Edward Island mussels from the "starters" category of the menu and have a very pleasant, very appealing, and relatively inexpensive meal.

But this was our anniversary -- a special occasion, indeed! -- and we expected to eat a full (dinner) meal; and so we did.

We began with two large glasses of New Mexico sparkling wine (Gruet Blanc de Noir, NV; @ $10. the glass) and a shared order of the beef short rib ravioli ($11. for the 1/2 portion), replete with roasted shallots, a "delicate" Stilton cream & golden raisins ... ecstasy amidst, and along with, the creamy sauce and stuffed ravioli pasta.  (We simply couldn't stop dipping our crunchy slices of bread into the ravioli sauce while we patiently awaited our next course, our entrees.)

My wife chose the potato-wrapped spiced salmon, a "tagine"-spiced (substantial) chunk of salmon surrounded by a chickpea puree, with harissa & broccoli "flowerets" polonaise.  While the salmon proved fresh & tender, nicely prepared & plated, the chickpea & harissa addition seemed absent or, at best, minimal. From the "forest" section of the menu, I selected the wild boar, double-cut loin chops atop beluga black lentils, roasted sweet peppers & baby beets in a sage-scented roast boar demi-glace. This wild boar "forest" plate -- the chops in an ensemble of sage-based demi-glace sauce, the extraordinarily flavorful black lentils, the roasted sweet peppers & beets -- was exceptional. And, after an initial few bites, I simply set out to engulf the whole dish which, in my inimitable way, I did ... chewing every bit of the tender boar meat off  the double-cut bones and, finally, sharing the remains of the rich sauce with my partner of forty years. The wild boar meat went down with ease -- and unabated satisfaction -- accompanied by the large glass of California Pinot Noir (The Pinot Project; @ $9.).
Red Velvet Sampler

We topped off our anniversary dinner with  black coffee and opted for one of Amanda Hartigan's singular desserts:  the almond-raspberry swirl blondie (@ $9.), under amaretto anglaise, and accompanied by white chocolate sorbet, almond cluster & sherry berries ... formidable, as they say en francais!

We'll be back to Chef Michael Carrino's elegant & imposing Pig & Prince, sans doubte ... the lobster risotto awaits!