2 weeks, 2 cities, 2 coasts! Part 1 of our U.S. winter east-to-west tour: NYC
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Life+Style Editor
What’s it like to, in one week, clock time on both major coasts in America’s two largest cities? For New York in winter, it’s all about theater; in Hollywood, it’s about the movies (and the weather, a welcome break from the cold). And both have great places to eat.
First up: NYC. This time of year, the wind bites through you there, so a trip has to be based on the theater season, which is at its midpoint. Some of the hits have become apparent and new ones promise something great in the spring.
Follies isn’t the not-to-miss Sondheim experience that A Little Night Music was last year — at least after Bernadette Peters took over for Catherine Zeta-Jones — but it is all Bernadette, without replacement — though she shares the limelight with Jan Maxwell, who almost steals the show. Seldom staged because of its huge cast, elaborate costumes and sets, Follies is a nostalgic take on the fate of musical theater as viewed from 40 years ago; little has changed.
But it also crystallized Sondheim’s peculiar thematic preoccupation with nostalgia. See it, and you instantly realize how many of his shows are about the wistful, bittersweet resignation from looking back on one’s youth: In Follies, the younger selves of the ageing chorus girls; in Sweeney Todd, a life lost to a corrupt judge; the rekindling of a long-dead romance in Night Music; the simplicity (or not?) of the fairy tale world of Into the Woods. This production is a wonderful reminder of that and much more, beautifully performed by an exceptional cast.
Follies closes this weekend; not so Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which officially opened last week. The quintessential American opera, set along Charleston’s Catfish Row, it evokes rural life through the sound of the spiritual mixed with honkytonk abandon. This new production, with the incomparable Audra McDonald in the lead and Dallas’ own Cedric Neal among the company, was the only show every employee at the TKTS booth unconditionally recommended … and for good reason. Get up and see it.
Both of those shows are revivals; original musicals are in short supply this season — at least those with any staying power. Bonnie & Clyde and the Dallas-bred Lysistrata Jones died quickly (the latter despite a rave in the New York Times; still, look for Liz Mikel a possible Tony nominee in May). Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark continues to draw crowds in amounts equal to the contempt held by the theater community, but it has been around since 2010 thanks to a record-setting six months of previews.
The big new musicals of the season have yet to open: Rebecca, Once, Newsies, Ghost and the pastiche Nice Work if You Can Get It (more Gershwin). So go up now for some plays, which are significantly less expensive to see and good seats are more readily available.
Another revival, Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, isn’t totally successful, although its tight second act — featuring a tremendously devilish performance by Jim Dale as a sleazy preacher in South Africa trying to trick an old lady into giving up her house — nearly vindicates the logy first act, which prattled on endlessly and without seeming point. By the end, though, you realize the message of faith versus religion versus spirituality, plus you get to see a classic theater actor, Rosemary Harris, onstage right next door to Spider-Man (she played Aunt Mae in the film versions — how’s that for coincidence?).
The best new plays now running should be on any theatergoer’s list. Seminar is Theresa Rebeck’s smart, fast-paced comedy about a pompous but oh-so-perceptive writing teacher instructing four aspiring novelists about how bad they really are … and how they could be great. As the sardonic anti-hero, the magnificent Alan Rickman commands the stage. At a climactic point, he delivers a monologue that could have seemed trite and mawkish, except that Rebeck’s writing is so strong and he’s such an accomplished actor it works wonderfully. Hamish Linklater provides a terrific foil, and Lily Rabe, as a tart upper-class dilettante, handles Sam Gold’s bullet direction masterfully. No one even pauses for the laughs. That’s a good way to get audiences back — so they can hear the jokes they missed this first time.
David Henry Hwang returns to Broadway with his best play since the gender-bending M. Butterfly. Chinglish(which closes Jan. 29) pits a plainspoken Midwesterner against the opaque business customs and complex social rules of China, but the point is broader. The problem of communication is not just between two cultures, but between men and women, and business-folk trying to gain an edge. Intelligently plotted and sharply directed by Leigh Silverman (the use of supertitles projected on the dazzlingly versatile set is inspired), it benefits from a memorable performance by Jennifer Lim as a canny Chinese functionary.
Of course, a theater trip to New York necessarily includes more than theater: You have to eat while you’re there, and the tradition of the pre- and post-theater meal is as honored as the show itself. It’s easy to get stuck along the stand-bys around Times Square (I always stop by John’s Pizzeria), but two newish restaurants — one far uptown, one far down — make for inventive off-the-beaten-path dining experiences.
Public, a Michelin-starred resto in Nolita, boasts something few Midtown restaurants can: space. Inspired by a public high school: Its dining rooms are lined with card catalogues, its security-glass doored bathrooms so authentic you expect to get a swirly, its menus presented on clipboards in a style that calls an exam paper (for a minute, I worried the waiter would grade me on how well I ordered). If it were all gimmick and no follow-through, these conceits would probably seem annoyingly twee, but they take a backseat to the food.
Its fusion dining from chef Brad Farmerie, with diverse dishes like roasted foie gras on a buttered brioche that’s richly flavorful, both fruity and salty; the scallops, while not fully caramelized, were so well-dressed with a miso salsa as to make you forgive that. For entrees, the Chatham cod’s fleshy, moist but well-charred preparation is not to miss, nor are the medallions of rare venison on a chewy blue cheese mash evocative of gnocchi. Add a great wine list, and Public is the perfect out-of-the-way find that makes a New York trip fun.
Red Rooster from celebrichef Marcus Samuelsson is out of the way in a different direction. Born in Africa but adopted by Swedes, Samuelsson gained fame at Aquavit, which made Scandinavian food hip. Now, he’s embraced the food of the African-American community.
He dropped Red Rooster, which opened about a year ago, in the middle of Harlem at the famed intersection of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street (the Apollo Theater is around the corner), giving neighbors, savvy downtowners and adventurous out-of-towners a polished (if slightly pricey) take on down-home cooking.
Samuelsson offers up droll reinventions of soul food classic like must-have “yard bird” (that’s just chicken — $24) fried in a crisp batter that has hints of cinnamon, perched on a bed of cheesy mashed potatoes and with a spicy-spicy house sauce that could bring out the secret flavors in a rice cake.
His Helga’s meatballs ($24) are equally delish, a kind of strange take on Thanksgiving with a lingonberry relish and paper-thin but crunchy housemade pickles, served alongside dill potatoes. It’s remarkable, how this comfort food warms you even though you’d never had it before. Hint: Start your meal with a side of mini tacos and tostadas ($9), four bite-sized bits of ceviche that are the perfect way to whet your appetite.
The bar is exceptional both in appearance (a bulbous horseshoe, topped in shiny copper) and substance — a drink menu worth repeated visits. Try the flight of craft beers ($9), or the Brownstoner ($12), a dazzling modification of the Manhattan. There’s even live music some evenings, giving you the true Harlem experience without having to brave a pub-and-club crawl in the frigid cold.
You don’t have to worry about the cold in Los Angeles … which will be the upcoming part 2.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 20, 2012.