Thursday, December 26, 2013

Afternoon in the west 20s ... eve in the West Village: The High Line; Chelsea galleries; Amber / Asian cuisine + "Small Engine Repair"

The High Line - Chelsea Segment
With some time on our hands and tickets to an off-Broadway play (a 7:00 pm curtain for Small Engine Repair) at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on west Christopher Street, we figured we'd spend the afternoon doing a bit of gallery hopping in Chelsea, focusing on a few key shows on West 21st St., and then taking a short walk on The High Line ... just strolling along a section of the elevated park between 14th & 23rd.  

The High Line - I. Baan, 2009
If you've never been to The High Line, you're missing an above-street-level park & promenade - a so-called "aerial greenway" (see photo) - with wild, natural vegetation that runs, now, from Gansevoort St., a few blocks below 14th St. in the Meatpacking District (between 10th & 11th avenues) up to 30th St. and soon, in the 3rd & final phase of the project, will reach 34th.

Promenade Plantée - Paris, 1993

Modeled on, and inspired by, the nearly 3-mile  Promenade Plantée, or "Tree-lined walkway," in Paris which was completed in1993 (it begins just east of the Opéra Bastille & winds through to the boulevard Périphérique), the 1-mile long High Line park/promenade was built on & along the north-south RR "bed" of the old West Side spur of the New York Central. An elevated freight line, long in disuse, it was to be demolished by the City of New York; but, instead, after considerable pressure & support by a vocal & involved group of local residents it was determined that the space would become a city park - a recreational structure & cultural site. Today, Friends of the High Line effectively maintains & preserves the public park/promenade as a "non-profit conservancy working with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation." 

Map - The High Line
So, if you plan to visit the Chelsea area of Manhattan, and hop to and from a few art galleries, as well, enjoy a walk on The High Line, now operating on a winter schedule, open from 7:00 am to 7:00 pm, seven days a week. Lots of interesting urban architecture, sculpture, cityscapes, vegetation - and people - to be seen (and photographed) along this unique 20+ block route!

We exited The High Line at 23rd & 10th, dipping down (again) to street level via the stairs (as the elevator wasn't in operation), and walked the few blocks to West 21st (our immediate goal) to visit two notable gallery exhibits:  Richard Serra's New Sculpture - Inside Out, 2013 (Gagosian Gallery @ 522 West 21st) and Bing Wright's unusual stained-glass photo "montages" (Paula Cooper Gallery @ 521 West 21st).
Richard Serra - "Inside Out," 2013
Serra's Inside Out (see photos) consists in a substantial edifice, constructed of attached weathered steel plates. Viewers can enter the maze-like structure and  proceed in a small number of different directions within reaching, at some point, an egress from whose vantage point one can see different sides and portions of the whole. 

One can also walk around the whole and attain a feel for the massiveness of the "sculpted" project. 

Richard Serra - "Inside Out" Section
But, whether one enters and circles through the structure or walks slowly, diffidently, around the external portions (i.e., the attached plates) of the massive figure, one cannot help but feel that the finished project would have benefited from a larger, more open venue. The structure's exceedingly solid, heavy, massive presence feels somewhat cramped & constricted - excessively massive - for the available gallery space at Gagosian. Inside Out is a substantial piece of imaginatively "sculpted" steel which seems, in a sense, to be occluded all around by the limitations of the gallery space ... to the extent that the full impact of the work feels reduced in stature, power & value. (Note: I have seen Richard Serra's huge sculpted steel works in considerably larger, more spacious surroundings - at the Dia Beacon, for example - and the overall effect(s) proved much more powerful & dynamic.)

Bing Wright - BrokenMirror/EveningSky
Bing Wright's show housed just a few doors away & across the street from the "Richard Serra: New Sculpture" (at Gagosian) did not disappoint at all. While there is a degree of sadness that seems to permeate the broken mirror motif witnessed in all of the photo montages on display here (see photo), the bold & muted colors amid cracks suffused with setting sunlight all join together synergistically to promote a masterful overall aesthetic effect. Wright has, it would seem, developed a photo technique - one of efficiency & directness - that has clearly evolved into a dazzlingly radiant form. 

If you decide to take that walk on The High Line, in the Chelsea vicinity, consider dropping down to street level, navigate yourself to 521 West 21st, and have a good look: the Bing Wright show runs through January 18th @ Paula Cooper.

Following our "dip" into the art galleries on (and near) West
Amber - External View
21st St., we thought we'd wend our way downtown (further) for dinner and our off-B'way theater engagement at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on west Christopher Street, just 1/2 a village-length block from Amber / West Village (@ 135 Christopher St.; tel. 212-477-5880). Specializing in sushi, sashimi, wok & grill platters & pan-Asian cuisine, this small, cozy & pleasant spot
- with staff consistently eager to please! - and a small, friendly & welcoming bar up front, seemed perfectly suited for our needs that evening:  a relatively quick meal to fortify us for what would soon prove a pretty intense theater event (billed as a "comic thriller") ... & with no intermission.
Amber - Internal View
We began with a tasty tempura mixed-vegetable appetizer, with a mildly spicy sauce - crispy, well-prepared, and certainly large enough to share.  While the salads & "special rolls" seemed particularly tempting, as described, we opted for our mains directly after our final bites of the tempura appetizer. My wife selected the bowl of pineapple fried rice accompanied by a large quantity of good-size shrimp (@ $12). The dish was extremely appealing but prolific and so she needed some help wading through both the shrimp and the fried rice. (Of course, I was glad to accommodate her, digging into the bowl for a few spoonfuls of its contents!). 

Shrimp Salad with Spicy Chili Sauce
But my own plate - Sangria crispy duck, with red wine glaze (@ $18) - proved, well, just about perfect ... yep, crispy on the outside and tender, fragrant, carefully cooked sections in the interior. A small Asian-inflected masterpiece, indeed: sweetly (heavenly)  glazed & thoroughly, hardily, grilled, all adding up to justify my to return to this little pan-Asian gem!   

We also knocked down two tall glasses of pale ale, an antidote to all that fried rice ... and opted to skip dessert when we found out that their signature crepe item (a dessert praised by other diners) was not available that night. 

Steamed Vegetable Dumplings
In short, a fine, filling & fairly priced pre-theater meal at a West Village (Asian) dining spot to which we will certainly come again for a wider sampling of their diverse fare - including, most especially, their home-made pan-fried pork dumplings; their sushi; & a small selection of items from their list of "special rolls" ... possibly the "Double Dragon," a shrimp tempura roll topped with eel, avocado & salmon roe!  Hmmm ...
Onward, finally, to the theater - and to our 7:00 pm curtain - for an in-depth look at Small Engine Repair ...
An MCC Theater production, directed by Jo Bonney, Small Engine Repair is an intense, relatively fast-paced comedy-drama 75 minutes long (straight through) without intermission. The play is set in an orderly but run-down repair shop in Manchester, NH, owned by Frank (John Pollono; actor & author), the central motivational "force" behind all the action. Frank has invited two of his high school buddies to meet at his shop, bringing together these foul-mouthed "friends," Packie (a slacker) & Swaino (a blowhard & loser) - with some bad blood between them - for what turns out to be, well, rather hyperbolic, alluring, and  mysterious pretenses. Packie is told that Frank may have cancer & Swaino was informed that strippers would be on hand for a party. Neither, of course, turns out to be true, but plenty of beer and Johnnie Walker Blue is provided by Frank as tensions mount between the three old friends. And so we begin to wonder exactly what a seemingly calm, steady & avuncular Frank has on his mind.

John Pollono
It turns out that while his two friends have been persistently evolving into near-complete failures, drifting around & about pretty much aimlessly, Frank has been running a business successfully & raising a daughter, Crystal (now a 17-year-old ready to attend college), pretty much by himself since high school. But something more seems to have transpired beyond what Frank is letting on, amounting to the real reason that Packie & Swaino have been summoned to the shop.
Something is, indeed, amiss, and we only learn about what this issue consists in as the evening proceeds and the Johnnie Walker gets more heavily dispersed. We learn, for example, that Packie, though seemingly an intellectual Neanderthal, knows something about the internet, the uses of social media, and cell-phone-related apps, like Foursquare, for "checking in"; we learn more about the relationships, both current and past, between & among the three friends; and we learn that Frank's daughter Crystal - and thus Frank himself - is in some kind of difficult or compromised situation and that it is all related to a "preppy," rich, college athlete named Chad who shortly enters the mix, arriving on the scene, he thinks, to sell Frank some drug-related materiel ... he deals in "ecstasy."  

And here, as they say, is where the Mamet-like plot proverbially thickens ... with Frank's anticipated assistance & "payback" from his old friends; with social media apps influencing action & outcomes; with revenge, retribution, and things increasingly more sinister developing which I won't dare reveal here just in case you have the opportunity to see the play when it (again) surfaces, on or off Broadway, or elsewhere. 

(Note: A brief fall, early-winter run of Small Engine Repair was extended through December 21st and has now closed.)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

LOVE, LINDA ... a musical review & Land of Plenty / east side Sichuan cuisine

If you are an aficionado of the Great American Songbook, then you must catch Love, Linda, a taut, at times tender, and bold (!) musical review portraying in song and dramatic monologue the outline and high (& low) points in the life of Linda Lee Thomas & Cole Porter


Running now (through January 5th) at The York Theatre Company (The Theater at Saint Peter's at 619 Lexington Avenue; tel. 212-935-5820), Love, Linda is an intimate theater piece that explores the life journey of the "southern beauty" who became Mrs. Cole Porter despite the fact that the legendary & prolific composer-songwriter was a gay man. And, although Cole Porter was gay, the marriage and friendship, begun in the Roaring Twenties, succeeded in lasting for some 35 years. 

Cole Porter
This one-woman show, starring the "acclaimed jazz vocalist," Ms. Stevie Holland celebrates, according to the theater's PR material, Porter's "timeless" music along with a "compelling narrative" ... all accentuating the "deep love that Linda and Cole shared, while examining the darker sides" of their lives.

Directed by Richard Maltby, Jr., and replete with music & lyrics by Cole Porter, Love, Linda runs about an hour (without intermission) and contains perhaps fifteen or sixteen of Porter's iconic songs delivered confidently & vivaciously with sensitivity, intelligence, and panache by Ms. Holland ... and featuring arrangements & additional music by Gary William Friedman (co-author of the book with his wife, Ms. Holland). 

Cole Porter Songbook
Most memorable songs offered up during the evening, in my view - and, perhaps, most  interestingly or idiosyncratically arranged for the 65-minute performance - proved to be the following:  "Miss Otis Regrets," "Love For Sale," "I Love Paris," "Night and Day," "In the Still of the Night," and the "combo" appropriately kicking off the music (& the drama) at the beginning of the show ... "So In Love" / "What Is This Thing Called Love." Two other nicely rendered Porter gems are "Ridin' High" & "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." And, additionally, right smack in the middle of the review, Ms. Holland launches into a short medley of well-known Porter material.

Very Best of Cole Porter
Once  again, if you consider yourself a die-hard "jazz-age"/jazz-inflected Cole Porter fan (or even if you don't), you still have time to see & hear Stevie Holland et al. during the next two weeks, or so, mid-town east at The York Theatre Company (theater entrance on 54th just east of Lex). And check with TDF where some (discounted) tickets for the review might just still be available.  

So, enjoy yourself ... at this sophisticated, one-of-a-kind musical confection!

Note:  Senior rush tickets (@ $20., cash) can be purchased at the box office beginning an hour before a scheduled performance. There is a limit of one ticket per person,subject to availability. 

Land of Plenty
Prior to trundling down to the theater on 54th & Lex to pick up our TDF tickets to see Love, Linda, the four of us out on the proverbial town decided to dine at a very welcoming & pleasant Land of Plenty - featuring "authentic Sichuan cuisine" (at 201 East 58th, near 3rd Ave.; tel. 212-308-8788).

This east-side Sichuan resto offers an extremely varied
Honey-glazed Spare Ribs

menu of hot & cold appetizers (a variety of steamed or fried dumplings, baby eggplant with spicy sesame dressing); soups (including Mme. Songs Fish Chowder, for two!); vegetables (for example, braised pumpkin with ginger & scallion); poultry (a very hot stir fried chicken with roasted chili & Asian green chili?); meats (braised beef filets with Napa cabbage & roasted chili); seafood (all kinds of whole fish, smoked, braised, or sauteed); rice & noodles ... and "Plenty's" ... a full column's length of specially prepared chef's offerings. 

Shredded Pork w/Garlic Sauce
Much to choose from at Land of Plenty. The constant flow of mains & appetizers - dishes of all sorts - coming out of the kitchen, along with their accompanying fragrances, enticed us & also confused us to the extent that we all felt it best to consult with our waiter as we set out to order a meal that would reflect:  individual "mandates"; a group effort; and at least a minimum degree of Sichuan diversity.

Braised Beef Filets
So: We began with two orders of dumplings, a plate of pan- fried pork dumplings (@ $5.95), nicely crisped, gingery, and another of steamed "mini-juicy" pork dumplings ($6.95). We followed up the dumplings with the baby eggplant in spicy sesame dressing ($6.95) and honey-glazed spare ribs ($7.95) ... and then ordered three mains (still sharing all!):  the thick & tender braised beef filets with Napa cabbage & roasted chili (@ $14.50); the shredded pork with spicy garlic sauce (a traditional Sichuan pork dish, but very juicy & mildly spiced; $11.50); and, from the Plenty's column, a braised whole tilapia with chili miso (a bit bony, delicately prepared & flavorful, and, again, nicely, but not overly, spiced; $21.50).

Of course, we had called for rice - and bowls of both brown and white were served, one or the other for each of us. And we washed all this food down with a few bottles of Tsingtao & Amstel Lite ... while one of our number couldn't refrain from her usual glass (or two) of Malbec for, admittedly, digestive purposes (to be sure).
Spicy Steamed Pork Dumplings

In short, a very diverse, comprehensive, filling, & memorably "authentic" Sichuan dining experience. And whether we return will certainly not be based on an if (if, for example, we see another musical review "off-B'way," mid-town, on the east side) ... but, rather, when ... and, hopefully, very soon, indeed!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Art Spiegelman at the Jewish Museum; Dawat - haute cuisine of India; & New Perspectives / off-off Broadway

Spiegelman, Self-Portrait
In case you haven't been following the cultural & artistic "news" of late, you might just be unaware that a varied mixture of Art Spiegelman's work produced during the past five decades, or so - comix, comics, memorable & idiosyncratic New Yorker covers, graphic novels, cartoon  magazines & ephemera - is currently represented in a comprehensive retrospective exhibit at The Jewish Museum (5th Ave. at 92nd St.; 212/423-3200).
Twas the Night Before Hanukkah

Entitled "Art Spiegelman's Co-Mix:  A Retrospective," the show runs through March 23rd 2014 and celebrates in-depth, according to museum publicity, "the career of one of the most influential living comics artists." While Spiegelman is well known for his thematically bold New Yorker covers, he is, perhaps, best known for the 2-volume Maus graphic novel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning project focusing allegorically, but laser-like, and with great profundity, on his parents' experiences during, & their survival of, The Holocaust. Spiegelman's work has been given prominence by the museum and is displayed in a large space (4 rooms, or more) throughout much of the museum's main floor. Reflecting all aspects of his diverse career, the show features drafts notes/idea pads, notebooks, preliminary drawings, completed early works (both comix & comic books), prints & finished volumes ... all currently on view & accessible. Indeed, there is much to see, much to read & skim, and much, too, to linger over and ponder in the various sections and display cases that comprise the exhibition.
Twin Towers Cover

This is a must-see show and one you might want to return to & mull over during a second visit because of the density of textual material and diversity of the graphic material on display. A great deal to see and to absorb has been accumulated & presented here, including Spiegelman's work and associations with other cartoonists, graphic artists, & children's authors ... notably his wife, Francoise Mouly (with whom he began to publish the "influential graphics magazine," RAW, in 1980); Charles M. Schulz (of Peanuts fame); and the late Maurice Sendak.

Meta Maus
Originally organized for the 2012 Festival International de la Bande Dessinee in Angouleme, France, by Rina Zavagli-Mattotti, kudos must go to Ms. Emily Casden, Curatorial Assistant at The Jewish Museum, particularly for providing the rich descriptive print (& PR) materials reflecting so thoughtfully (in small spaces) on all aspects of Art Spiegelman & his work, as well as on the thematic content of the exhibition at large!

NYC [Agam] Menorah
Before dining, and following our afternoon visit to the Art Spiegelman show, we trundled down 5th Avenue to 59th Street at Grand Army Plaza where "the world's largest menorah" would be lit, ceremonially, at about 5:30. The golden-colored Hanukkah menorah - designed after a model created by the celebrated Israeli sculptor & experimental artist,Yaakov Agam - stands 32 feet high, weighs in at 4,000 pounds, and, if you look up & away from the traffic & the pedestrian crowd, can (still?) be seen diagonally across from The Plaza hotel right near the tip of Central Park (just off 5th Avenue!).

Yaakov Agam
Although delayed a bit for "technical" reasons, we succeeded in witnessing the candle-lighting event from a prime spot just below the great menorah: five candles were lit & glowing in the bustling plaza signaling to all of New York that the 5th night of Hanukkah, 2013, was, indeed, upon us. Next, we moved along, down to 58th St. and over to 3rd Avenue to Dawat (210 E. 58th; 212/355-7555) where the self-proclaimed haute cuisine of India awaited us and where several of the personal recipes of Madhur Jaffrey ("unique to Dawat") can be tasted.

Dawat - Interior
Dawat is a very welcoming & pleasant eating establishment - with exceedingly attentive & helpful service to diners and a head waiter(s) who offers (offered us, at least) solid advice & useful direction in terms of identifying our "final" choices among the various categories (& sub-categories) of dishes (mains, starters, soups, salads, etc.) offered on a highly diverse menu. And, once chosen, aimed to please my wife in permitting her (and us, really) to make personal substitutions - without additional charge - within the framework of her commodious Dawat Special (@ $29.95), affording her (still) a very complete & diverse dinner.
Tandoori chicken

My wife's "Dawat Special" - again, a complete dinner, offering a substantial
amount of food for one person (possibly two, depending) - contained the following "segments": a bowl of thick, creamy lentil soup; an order of tandoori chicken; seekh kabab (delicately spiced skewered vegetable rolls); fish tikka (a chunk of Chilean sea bass marinated in an aromatic herb mixture); chicken saag (chicken pieces smothered in a spicy spinach puree); potatoes with ginger & tomatoes in a thick sauce; a basket of naan bread; and a vegetable rice pilau, more than enough for two diners to share!

My own choice, the (tandoori) raan ($26.95), heartily endorsed by our head waiter, consisted of a whole small tender leg of lamb braised with ginger & spices, then roasted in the tandoor oven until crispy outside and "meltingly tender" inside.  A lightly spicy lentil sauce came with the dish to provide just the right amount of moisture & additional flavor. Although advertised on the menu as comprising a small leg of lamb, the results proved to be a large dish half of which I had packed up & took home. A very unusual lamb dish, indeed, and one I had never before encountered on a "standard" Indian menu.

Chicken adraki tikka
We ordered two Indian pale ales to complement our dinner ... to aid us in digesting all of the attentively prepared, (moderately) spicy fine food.  While we were full & content ... and pleased with what we had ordered, we barely scratched the proverbial surface of the very comprehensive & varied Dawat menu. Therefore, suffice it to say, we simply must return, in the not-too-disant future, for another "go-round" - many more choices to be made here at Dawat, including samplings on the menu from their "popular curries," "kebabs," "seafood" & extensive tandoori offerings! Perhaps we'll even try a Madhur Jaffrey item or two, such as the Western Indian vegetarian stew called Sindhi Karhi or Crab Nazakat, an "exotic" crab salad combined with mustard seeds, kokum, honey, coconut milk & fresh curry leaves served up with a spicy potato croquette. But ... who knows.

And now, for a moment, on to the "theatre":  This season Broadway & Off-Broadway houses seem to be just inundated with exciting new plays (Domesticated, The Jacksonian, Bad Jews, The Night Alive) and attractive revivals (Richard III, Waiting for Godot,The Glass Menagerie, No Man's Land).  Much to see this season - perhaps more than usual, both on, and off, Broadway. But, in your search for a musical, drama, or comedy, you ought not to neglect the sometimes "budget" productions offered in off-off-Broadway venues, housing small theater companies where actors, directors & writers are experimenting in new forms, brief(er) formats, mixtures of short plays, and other idiosyncratic theater pieces which might just satisfy your varied entertainment needs & aesthetic interests. 

Richard Vetere
One such organization is the New Perspectives TheatreCompany (Melody Brooks, Artistic Director), located in a small but satisfactory space at 456 West 37th St., where we recently saw Richard Vetere Explains the World ... Ten Minutes at a Time. The production comprises six short (10-minute) "plays" (some, well,mere sketches) with such titles as "The Intern," "Fortress America," "88%," "No More Writers," "A Strip Club Christmas Memory" ... and features a diverse, highly talented ensemble cast of multi-racial actors delivering the material with intelligence, spirit & panache. The subject matter reflected in these short plays proved funny, sad, odd & timely focusing on such topics as, well, (unpaid) "internships," perhaps the most seamless & funniest of the six. Other content broached the borderline between the accused terrorist(s) and one's civil rights, and the question, or condition, of a world without writers & writing, in which writers "work" purely underground, positioned precariously, awaiting interrogation & punishment for their words.  All content, of course, is emphatically generated by Richard Vetere and his roving, salt-impacted, (black) comedic, idiosyncratic world view: "I don't always find the world most interesting," he declares. "But when I do, I write about it." And so Mr. Vetere does, extensively ... in the guise of playwright, novelist & screenwriter.
Theatre Development Fund

Sadly, Richard Vetere Explains the World closed in mid-November (we attended the final performance of the run on November 17th). Next up at New Perspectives seems to be a collection of five short plays by Richard Wentz,a world premiere preview - entitled Night of the Working Dead. Beginning on January 15th, the 5 plays in the sequence organize a tribute to, and honor, "working stiffs across the country." You can probably catch this next group of short plays for $9 a ticket via TDF ... so check out the off-off Broadway listings during the next few weeks!  You're sure to enjoy at least a few of the plays in the upcoming production ... mounted under the  aegis of the new play development program at New Perspectives

At any rate, take yourself to an off-off theater in the near future for, well, any play whose description catches your fancy ... anything can happen; you just might be pleased, charmed, shocked or (simply) satisfied for having had the experience! 

Chekhov's Cherry Orchard - Off-Off
I'm checking the TDF web site, simultaneously, as we speak ... for interesting possibilities during the coming weeks; there is consistently something in the off-off "marketplace" for just about every imaginable taste & theatrical preference. And the TDF web site works just fine!