Kidd’s stuff

When Chip Kidd is the designer, you can judge a book by its cover

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CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK? | Dust jacket designer Chip Kidd, above, has created iconic covers for authors like David Sedaris and Haruki Murakami, below.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

Chip Kidd takes the adage “you can’t judge a book by its cover” seriously. On the other hand, part of his job is to get you to look at the book in the first place.

In the world of publishing, there is probably no more respected dust-jacket designer than Kidd. After more than 25 years at Alfred A. Knopf, Kidd’s reputation is almost as solid as the authors for who he has designed covers: Michael Crichton, David Sedaris, Cormac McCarthy, James Ellroy and Michael Ondaatje, to name a few; some writers even have it in their contracts that no one but Kidd may design their book jackets.

You might think such acclaim would give Kidd an ego bigger than some of the novelists and essayists whose words adorn his art. But nothing could be further from the truth.

“Yes, a cover can be a sales tool, but it can just get your attention,” he says. “The question I get asked with astonishing regularity, and have for decades now, is ‘Do you read the books before you design them?’ Oh my god yes! Yes yes yes yes yes!”

Everything he does is in service to the text. Which means he has to flex his creative muscle while still respecting the source.

“It’s tricky — each book is its own particular case,” Kidd says from his office in New York City. “ I could give you a whole case study on [McCarthy’s] The Road and how we ended up with what we did. But different authors want different things. I have been doing this 25 years and counting, and that’s working non-stop. There is every conceivable story [of how a design came about].”

Those stories, in fact, make up a presentation of his work that he’ll bring to the Dallas Museum of Art this week.

There are carefully planned successes, and unexpected failures, “such as the horrible [cover] you have to do again and again until everyone gives up,” he says.

“But the opposite of that is also true: The one where everything comes together.”

Kidd is thinking about his design for Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, an experience “that was almost too good to be true. The [final design ] is bookshelvesexactly what I presented to our editor-in-chief. I usually do about three different things, but this one I thought was absolutely the best thing to do and everybody agreed. I would say that’s my most favorite or my recent covers.”

Without even reading the book, its cover suggests something ethereal, dreamlike, unnerving — all words that Kidd says capture Murakami’s writing to a tee.

The story begins with a woman in Tokyo navigating down a spiral staircase from a highway, but when she reaches the bottom, she feels she has entered a parallel universe. Kidd originally considered a Tokyo cityscape, “but faces work remarkably well on an emotional level and on an aesthetic level. I just started researching faces of Japanese women.” Suddenly, an instant classic.
It’s not always that easy.

“We publish every conceivable kind of book — cookbooks, crime fiction, literature,” Kidd says. And he has to bring that creative bent to all of them.

“Genre stuff is hardest because you want to transcend the genre,” he says. ” Technically, 1Q84 is science fiction — there is supernatural stuff going on, though it is very subtle. So a design ethos of mine is, if you can predict what I’m going to do, I’ve failed.”

There is a shorthand that develops when he works with the same authors over and over, but even that’s almost incidental, because “I try to wipe the slate clean every time.” Still, no one can deny his covers for Michael Crichton’s books, such are Jurassic Park, became part of the iconography of the novels. (I tell Kidd Disclosure is still one of the best dust jackets I’ve ever seen. “Yes, that’s about as good as it gets,” he agrees.)

Turning a hardcover jacket into a paperback soft-cover is a whole different beast, which comes with its own dynamics.

“There are so many different factors at play” in designing a paperback, he says. “Sometimes it’s about whether the hardcover was perceived to have under-performed. Then you have the opposite and everything in between: Let’s keep this and that element and change the rest. One of the things we follow here at Knopf is, at the end of the day you want the author to be pleased. You sometimes talk them into it or you compromise. There is a sort of buttered-side-down aspect to this business.”

What does it take to make a lasting, memorable cover? Even Kidd’s not sure. Certainly, though, he’s agree that the original jacket for The Great Gatsby is iconic. Not so much.

“From a graphic designer’s point of view, coming into it cold, it’s not great — it’s kind of silly! Eyes floating over a purple sky…? But the book is iconic so the cover became iconic. The most important thing is the text. … though from a book collector’s point of view, to find a first edition with a jacket is worth tons and tons of money.”

Spoken like someone who understands art and business.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 24, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

1 hit, a lot of balls

Though not a perfect game, ‘Take Me Out’ scores in the bottom of the 9th

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DESIGNATED HOTTIES | The shower scenes are steamy, but the interpersonal dynamics between ballplayers (Kevin Moore and Lloyd Harvey) run the bases in ‘Take Me Out.’ (Photo by Mike Morgan)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes a first act can fool you.

Act 1 of Richard Greenberg’s play Take Me Out, is, quite simply, not very good. The exposition is lazy, the central conflict (intentionally kept close to the vest) twee, the dialogue on the stilted side. Aside from the much-hyped locker-room nudity — and this is not a comment on the actors’ bodies — there’s not much “there” there.

Then comes Act 2, and Take Me Out opens like a lily with the breaking dawn.

In Uptown Players’ current production, the second is nearly twice as long as the first, but it crackles with energy. Greenberg’s “floating narrator” device almost works, and the non-linear storytelling begins to make sense. And there’s more nudity. Nothin’ wrong with that.

Take Me Out is a buzz-worthy play, flesh aside: Set in 2002, it’s the story of Darren Lemming (Lloyd Harvey), a Major League Baseball player — the best in the pros (suggestively modeled on Derek Jeter back when there were rumors of his sexual orientation) — who at the height of his skills comes out. Putatively, the play deals with the fallout from that announcement, but really, it doesn’t. Almost all the characters are inside the clubhouse; we get only a faint sense of the public reaction (which, we all know, would be a shitstorm). Instead, being gay is used as a catalyst for the interpersonal dynamics within the dugout.

The societal element is a missed opportunity — Darren would be mobbed with talk-show requests; we’re owed at least one sit-down with Oprah — and the gay idea could be almost anything (he could have come out as atheist or Muslim or Communist, it hardly matters). But eventually, you get caught up in the story, especially the conflict between Darren and Shane Muggitt (Andrews Cope), an illiterate redneck brought up from the minors, and his financial advisor “Mars” (Art Kedzierski), a flamboyant gay man intoxicated by his newfound love of baseball.

Darren himself is a difficult character to parse; he’s arrogant though we are constantly reminded universally loved; that seems unlikely, especially for Mets fans. He’s, in turn, incredibly savvy and unbelievably naïve, smart then a dolt. Harvey eventually settles into a rhythm, though there are moments that waver.

There aren’t any with Kedzierski, who’s hilarious and touching, and really, the emotional touchstone for the audience. He’s the first person onstage who seems specific, not just a metaphor for some principle or a utility character serving a dramaturgical function. Kedzierski’s enthusiasm infects the play, carrying over to scenes he’s not even in. Cope’s take on Muggitt as more imbecile than bigot is a canny, almost daring one (as Tropic Thunder cautioned, “ya never go full retard”). Kevin Moore, as the principal narrator, adds depth to a sketchy character.

Andy Redmon’s set, suggestive of a baseball diamond, makes a great nod to an outdoor game set entirely in the confines of a locker room, and Michael Serrecchia’s direction makes the most of the weaker parts of Greenberg’s script.

Not every game has to be won on a home run, as long as you get a few hits and run the bases. Way to hustle, guys. Now hit the showers.

……………………….

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To read more reviews of new local theater, visit
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This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 10, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

The hurt locker room

Newcomer Lloyd Harvey shed 20 pounds, his dreadlocks, some insecurities and his pants to play a gay baseball stud in Uptown Players’ ‘Take Me Out’

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THE FULL HARVEY | Lloyd Harvey bares all — along with most of the cast of the baseball drama ‘Take Me Out’ from Uptown Players. (Photo courtesy Mike Morgan)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Lloyd Harvey has something to confess — an outing of himself, if you will.

He hates sports. Well, not hate, it’s just that “I’m more of a comic book nerd. I like movies. I never played sports so I never had the ‘locker room experience.’”

This might not be relevant, except that this week, Harvey will find himself not only in a locker room, but naked there. And pretending to be a god among athletes.

If one wasn’t frightening enough, together they are almost too much to take.

Harvey has the lead role in Take Me Out, the Pulitzer Prizewinning play about a mega-star of the baseball diamond who comes out as gay, setting the sports world — especially his diverse bunch of largely homophobic teammates — into a tizzy.

When Harvey auditioned for it, though, he didn’t really expect to get it — he’s tried out for shows at Uptown Players before without success. Plus, he was able to see his competition.

“I was looking around the room and seeing all these chiseled, fit guys and I’m thinking, ‘I won’t get it,’’ he relates. “Then I got a call-back, which was great, but now I’m seeing all these guys with six-pack abs and I’m the guy with a keg.” That’s when he told the producers he would lose 10 pounds. He even cut off the dreadlocks he’d been growing for three years to get the role.

To his surprise, they cast him — and took him up on his offers to cut and trim. That’s when the real work began.

“I started on P90X [workout] and stopped eating fast food that day,” Harvey says. “One of my friends is a personal trainer,  and he made a 20-minute workout to do on top of the P90X. It’s been a total physical change. I weighed 200 pounds in December and now I weigh 180.”

So focused was Harvey, he almost forgot to be nervous about stripping down for the famous shower scene of locker room grab-ass.

“Being an actor — or any kind of artist — you’re putting yourself out there for whatever you do. This is like putting yourself out there double-time. You’re trying not to break the fourth wall while there are a few hundred people watching us. But all you have to do is say ‘Fuck it!’ and have the confidence to go out there and put your heart and your body on the line … though telling my mother I had to do a nude role was an interesting conversation.”

She wasn’t the only one. Harvey has performed at Dallas Children’s Theater and had major roles in community theater productions of Rent and Sweeney Todd, but this is certainly his professional break-through. But it’s also the first time he’s been able to get his friends interested in what he does.

“Before I would do a show and not all my friends would see it. But as soon as I started saying, ‘Yeah, there’s gonna be full nudity in it, ‘every one of my friends bought tickets to see my penis onstage. Some of them threatened to bring cameras. I told them that’s a no-go. ‘Take a picture and I hope you get kicked out of the theater,’ I said. ‘And we certainly won’t be friends anymore.’”

He probably won’t have a hard time making new friends after this anyway.

………………….

Oh, ‘Pluck’ it

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Steven Walters will be the first person to admit his play Pluck the Day wasn’t the best. You can’t blame him for thinking that — he wrote it 10 years ago, when he already thought he knew everything. When an actor called wanting to submit it to a festival, he thought he was joking. “Sure,” he agreed, “for all the good it’ll do.”

Only it got in, and Walters realized something terrible: He was actually going to have to rewrite it. And re-rewrite. And then again.

It’s almost opening night and he’s still trimming and fixing, whittling down a 2-1/2 hours show into a tight 80 minutes with no intermish.

Pluck the Day was first performed by Second Thought Theatre, which Walters co-founded, in its inaugural season; a decade later, it kicks off STT’s 10th season. It’s like revisiting a long-lost friend. Or maybe frenemy.

“I have a healthy dissatisfaction for everything I do,” Walters says over a beer and burger. “The old script was not good — it was talky and too long. It had no point of view. Now it does.”

The biggest change in the revision, he says,  is in the character of Bill, who we learn is gay. Bill is the only man sitting on a lopey West Texas porch who actually develops; the others remain blissfully content to nurture their decaying way of life. But it’s still a comedy.

“It’s a farce,” Walters assures. “That’s one thing that hasn’t changed.”

— A.W.J.

Bryant Hall next to the Kalita, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Through Feb. 26. Second ThoughtTheatre.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 3, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

2 days in the Valley

… And a few in WeHo. Part 2 of our coast-to-coast travelogue. Now up: L.A.

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HOT IN THE CITY | The salsas at Light My Fire in the Farmers Market have provocative names like Anal Angst and Colon Cleanser, making them popular with a gay crowd. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

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ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

West Hollywood, The Castro, P’Town, Chelsea, Key West, South Beach: The names alone of these locales are synonymous with gay culture. But just as Dallas boasts two gayborhoods in Cedar Springs and Oak Cliff, so does Los Angeles claim two queer destinations. The Silver Lake district — east of WeHo and abutting the hills of the San Fernando Valley — is one of the most populous gay ZIP codes in America. And if you have a car, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy both on the same trip.

The car requirement isn’t merely a suggestion. L.A. has notoriously insufficient public transportation (watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for the backstory) and everything is pretty spread out — traffic is more congested than a kindergarten in January.

WeHo — centered mostly along a mile-long strip of Santa Monica Boulevard (the old Route 66) — deserves its reputation as queer central: Simply put, it is one of the gayest towns in America (its police cars are even decorated with rainbow colors). Crammed with shops, restaurants, gyms and clubs within two square miles, its population has remained fairly constant for 50 years (last census, about 34,000), but you could spend an entire day walking around without running out of things to do (while barely ever seeing a straight person).

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UNTIL THE SUN COMES UP OVER SANTA MONICA BOULEVARD | Well, actually it’s Wilshire. And the sun is setting. But L.A. is still a great place to visit, especially the gay enclaves of West Hollywood and Silver Lake. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

A big Starbucks (known as “the gay Starbucks”) has benches that look out on the strip for great people-watching opportunities. If you want more than coffee and a scone, though, Basix is an essential stop, with brunchy items available much of the day (try the delicious blackened ahi tacos).

For lunch (or dinner or even late-night bites), two unmissable eateries are right next to each other. Hamburger Haven is an institution a la Hunky’s: a burger joint with a devoted following. The buns are grilled on the classic “sassy cheeseburger,” and thick cut fries are must-haves; next door, Bossa Nova serves what it calls Brazilian cuisine, though its large portioned pasta dishes are the main staples with locals. Both are open well into the early morning hours, and for good reason: They are across the street from two popular gay clubs.

“Welcome to the fabulous Abbey, where the drinks are cheap and the boys are cheaper,” one local jokes. Now 20 years old, The Abbey truly is a legendary club.

Designed to conjure a cloisters, it attracts a wide range of types (including straight clubbers) caught up in its energy, shirtless bartenders and go-go boys and girls.

Next door, Here Lounge is a unique and fun spot, a sports bar where you don’t watch sports so much as fantasize about athletes. Even gay Angelenos marvel at their theme nights, like Hooker Casino on Saturdays and Stripper Circus on Wednesdays.

There are almost too many other clubs to count: Revolver, one of the oldest gay bars anywhere (it recently returned to its original name); Gym, a sports bar; Rage, where the young guys hang out; Trunks; and many more.

You can venture further out, though, and still have a great time. South of WeHo, The Grove and the abutting Farmers Market are great destinations, not only for shopping but for some history.

The Grove is a lovely, new, high-end outdoor shopping center (weekdays, Mario Lopez films exteriors for Extra here) with everything from Abercrombie & Fitch to Crate & Barrel. Next door, the Farmers Market — founded in 1934 — offers almost the opposite experience: Old-school charm. Stop by Loteria for some excellent tacos, or satisfy your craving for heat at Light My Fire, where hundreds of salsas (some with names like Colon Cleaner and Anal Angst) are for sale.

Into the Silver Lake area, a good pre-clubbing dinner stop is Malo along West Sunset Boulevard. For California Tex-Mex, it serves a super spicy house hot sauce with its chips (the sauce also accents the cheese chili rellenos), and the house infused tequilas are great. Try also the tres leches cake for dessert — one of the best anywhere.

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ISLE OF PALMS | Even in winter, Los Angeles stays sunny most days, though at night you’ll want a jacket. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

When done there, haul over to The Eagle L.A., a predominant leather and Levi bar in town (emphasis on the word “dominant”). Skeevier than its Dallas counterpart but spacious and fun, it attracts an enthusiastic bearish clientele  (a surprisingly popular subculture in slick, Botox-happy L.A.). Incredibly crowded on big nights like Mr. Eagle, it’s a fun place even on an off-night with muscular, nearly naked bartenders. (In L.A., it’s legal for porn to play in bars, and while not all take advantage of that, The Eagle sure does.)
Faultline, not too far away, is a rougher leather bar, and the straight club Little Temple is a gay-friendly spot to see interesting live music.

You don’t need to get the totally “gay” experience to enjoy L.A., either. West of WeHo, Beverly Hills is the famous enclave of the wealthy, with pricey boutiques and lovely homes worth a drive. The city is also loaded with interesting architecture from the 1930 through the ‘50s, which you can enjoy in WeHo, Silver Lake or even the San Fernando Valley.

“The Valley” has a reputation as the pimply-faced stepbrother of central L.A., but there’s interest there, too … and even some celebrity sighting opportunities. Aroma Cafe in the Studio City area is a large, hipster-friendly outdoor bistro that’s ideal for hangover brunches, but just as good for a completely sober breakfast, especially for one of the huge omelets or an unusual but tasty version of chilaquiles. (It’s also across the street from the Italian restaurant where the murder Robert Blake was accused of took place.)

Tool around slowly in Studio City or Burbanks, and you can see some of the facilities where TV shows like Will & Grace were shot. You might even see some celebs walking around or getting their dry-cleaning. That’s Los Angeles for you.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 27, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

A-‘Ledge’-dly, a thriller

A month into 2012, and already a contender for worst movie of the year

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GO AHEAD & JUMP | Sam Worthington gives a tic-filled performance in the execrable ‘Man on a Ledge.’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

It’s a mitzvah when the movie studios get the worst movie of the year out of the way early — and kind of canny. Cause once you see Man on a Ledge (if you even bother), every movie that follows it will look so good by comparison. It’s rather genius, really, like burning your partner’s toast so your omelet seems tastier.

The title says it all, doesn’t it? We don’t know much about Nick (Sam Worthington), other than he’s a former cop who got sent to the big-house for some reason, and has now escaped and stepped onto the ledge of a building on Madison Avenue. He is both determined that the cops not know who he is, yet actively courting folk-hero status with the people in the street. A hostage negotiator (Elizabeth Banks) serves some function, I’m not sure what. There’s a smug TV reporter (Kyra Sedgwick), too, just so you know who to hate for doing their job.

Sam Worthington got off to a propitious movie career: His first three roles (in Terminator: Salvation, Clash of the Titans and Avatar) made him a household name, if not face, and last year he took on a “prestige” picture, The Debt, which wasn’t very good but looked like it might be, so props for that.

By now he should be realizing that lucky casting and good hair will only take you so far. He’s expected to carry Man on a Ledge, despite the “all-star” cast (with “star” having the same definition it does on Dancing with the Stars). Worthington is, after all, the title Man, who doesn’t seem suicidal but appears to have nothing to lose… unlike the audience, which loses nearly two hours of its life. He goes for being twitchy, since he doesn’t get to move around much.

As a Donald Trump-like real estate mogul and professional blowhard, Ed Harris appears positively skeletal; I don’t think it’s because he’s supposed to remind of the villainous Skeletor, either. He’s gaunt and frail, and he moves as if his entire body is in a cast. You don’t so much want him to get his comeuppance as you do an MRI. Edward Burns, inarguably Hollywood’s most boring actor, plays a rough-and-tumble cop, because, I mean, what’s a cop movie without someone who can be a sexist asshole to the women in the movie? Man on a Ledge doesn’t miss many clichés: Its plot is needlessly complex (an elaborate heist, reliance on precise police procedures, a series of “planned” coincidences) but also nonsensical (if any one of the Rube Goldberg-eqsue plans varies even slightly, the entire thing collapses; even if they accomplish their task, they prove nothing), as well as, for example, a beautiful girl stripping down to her bra because, you know, guys like to see that kind of thing. (The men also make crudely homophobic jokes, just to prove they are “real men.”) Gaps in logic and cheesy objectification and bigotry are the least of its problems however. The director, Asger Leth, and scripter, Pablo A. Fenjves, find it necessary to make every single scene a conflict between some characters, as if that will mask the lack of overall dull idea underlying it and a climax that’s flabbier and less exciting than an obese person marathon.

On the continuum of bad quasi-mysteries about complicated capers with hidden motives, Man of a Ledge is about on par with Inside Man and a few steps below Law Abiding Citizen and nowhere near the original Talking of Pelham 1-2-3 (though about the same as the remake). It may make you think about other films, but it’s best not to think about (or see) this one.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 27, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Going bi (coastal)

2 weeks, 2 cities, 2 coasts! Part 1 of our U.S. winter east-to-west tour: NYC

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BERN THE FLOOR | Bernadette Peters returns to B’way for more Sondheim in the smash revival of ‘Follies.’ (Photo courtesy Joan Marcus)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

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.

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GRADE A | Public, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Nolita, offers great food in a high school themed setting. (Photo courtesy Public)

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.

—  Kevin Thomas

Top 10 tables

North Texas’ best new restaurants of 2011 provided a lesson in substance over style

MEXICAN, REINVENTED  |  The Mayan calendar may end in 2012, but that’s no reason not to enjoy the cuisine from MesoMaya, the top table of 2011.

MEXICAN, REINVENTED | The Mayan calendar may end in 2012, but that’s no reason not to enjoy the cuisine from MesoMaya, the top table of 2011.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

2011 was the year great dining found a way to avoid being fine dining.

There are all kinds of restaurants for all tastes and pocketbooks. Truth is, fancy usually takes you further because when you evaluate an overall dining experience, atmosphere and service come into play; standing in line to eat a burger out of a napkin while standing at a counter costs some points.

Or rather, it used to.

It’s probably a combination of things — the economy, the rise of the food truck, an emphasis on the taste of food above the flash of atmosphere — that led to an emphasis of substance over style in 2011. In 2010, we happily tagged Nosh as our top eatery: Elegant and pretty, but also an easy, sociable dining experience. Still, back then, there were slim pickin’s overall: I went with a Top 5 instead of 10, because that’s all that felt warranted.

Not so this year. At least 17 restos were legitimately in play as I was whittling it down to a Top 10, and several more — Campo, Chesterfield, Texas Spice, Oak — opened too late in the season for me to give full shrift. They’ll be up for consideration next time.

Some others almost made the list. Il Cane Rosso gave Deep Ellum another great, authentic eatery — this time, a Neapolitan pizzeria that’s no fuss, all must-have. Meddlesome Moth has some strong points (terrific hummus, the best dessert — chess pie — in town) but couldn’t consistently impress me.

Oddly, many of the restaurants that impressed me most had quirky things in common that helped define them as the anti-fine-dining Class of ’11: Brushed concrete floors (at least three of them), prosaic strip-mall locations (most of them), TV celebrichefs-done-good (Nos. 7 and 8).

Also, by and large, the restaurants that stood out also tended to group around themes: Sophisticated Tex-Mex, Eastern fusion, classy retro-joints and ravenously good tacos. I’m gonna keep with those trends as well, so here are the Top Tables of 2011. (Look for reviews of some of them in the coming weeks.)

The Top 3 —Mexivention: MesoMaya, Mesa, Komali

Never tell a German how to drink beer, a New Yorker how to eat pizza or a Texan how to do anything.

But especially don’t tell him about Tex-Mex. (Or tacos, though that’ll come later.)

We Texans know what we like when it comes to Southwestern-style cuisine, and Dallasites are especially arrogant about it. After all, we claim Stephan Pyles and Dean Fearing and Avner Samuel, who basically invented it for gourmet palates.

But even we can be surprised. The menu at MesoMaya Comida y Copas has a lot of familiar elements (posole, enchiladas, tacos), but this isn’t Tex-Mex: It’s central Mexican cuisine, resplendent with Mayan influence — Latin-Mesoamerican fusion par example. (1190 Preston Road, MesoMaya.com)

If MesoMaya is fiercely flavorful peasant food, then Mesa in Oak Cliff and Komali in Uptown are its sophisticated cousins. Komali, the companion restaurant to Mex-born chef Abraham Salum’s eponymous eatery, exudes an easy polish with soft features that don’t distract from the modern, urban-Mexican dishes, full of moles and wonderful salsas. (4152 Cole Ave., KomaliRestaurant.com)
Mesa, south of the Trinity, is less slick-looking that Komali (the exterior looks like a wig shop) but the food boasts soaring flavors from the Veracruzana region, with deft technique. And both have bar programs worthy of a cocktail hour. (118 W. Jefferson Ave., MesaDallas.com)

4 through 6 — Eastern artistry: Baboush, Malai Kitchen, Pho Colonial (Downtown)
Whether you’re talking the Far East or the Middle East, exotic cuisine gained a foothold in Dallas. Baboush claims the closest inspiration — a North African-influenced restaurant that brings a touch of the Mediterranean to the West Village. Forward flavors dominate even though the lush, genie-in-a-bottle atmosphere has its appeal. (3636 McKinney Ave., BaboushDallas.com)

Go to the Far East for two inventive restos. Across the street from Baboush is Malai Kitchen, one of the few eateries on this year’s list that takes décor seriously, but not as seriously as its food (especially its curries and a fantastic brunch). (3699 McKinney Ave., MalaiKitchen. com). Downtown’s Pho Colonial (there’s another in Far North Dallas) takes counter-service that should feel like Vietnamese comfort food and turns it into haute cuisine with expertly cooked meats, big portions and a wallop on the tongue. (164 N. Ervay St., PhoColonial.com)

7 and 8 — Traditional Fine-Dine: Private | Social, Marquee Grill
Two Dallas chefs who gained national fame as fan favorites on Top Chef — Tiffany Derry and Tre Wilcox — ventured out on their own with favorable results. Derry’s Private | Social, with its seafood-heavy menu, interesting concept and sparkly interior, has the edge over Wilcox’s old-school eclectic New American cuisine at Marquee Grill, but both harken to event restaurants that were common before the New Casual took over. 3232 McKinney Ave., PrivateSocial.com; 32 Highland Park Village, MarqueeGrill.com)

9 and 10 — Street Food Goes Big: Taco Ocho, Good 2 Go Tacos
Food anthropologists 100 years from now will probably note a straight line from waist girth, the legitimization of food trucks and the indulgent taco stand in 2011. As gourmet taquerias proliferated, these two — Taco Ocho, a slick, likeable, well-lit suburban place and the woman-owned Good 2 Go Tacos, a glorified lunch counter in East Dallas — made the most significant impact on us, forever and finally making the Old El Paso paradigm on thing of the past. (930 E. Campbell Road, Richardson, TacoOcho.com; 1146 Peavy Road, Good2GoTaco.com)
For a review of Good to Go Tacos, see sidebar on Page 21.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 6, 2012.

—  Michael Stephens

Black & White in color

Former Dallasite Robert Bartley returns from NYC to helm Pegasus Theatre’s latest monochrome play

TAMING PEGASUS  |  New York-based writer/director/actor Robert Bartley, above, returned to Dallas to direct his first Living Black & White production, ‘The Frequency of Death!,’ below, which recreates the look of ’30s-era movie melodramas with complex and challenging makeup and design processes. (Production  photo courtesy of Phil Allen)

TAMING PEGASUS | New York-based writer/director/actor Robert Bartley, above, returned to Dallas to direct his first Living Black & White production, ‘The Frequency of Death!,’ below, which recreates the look of ’30s-era movie melodramas with complex and challenging makeup and design processes. (Production photo courtesy of Phil Allen)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

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FREQUENCY OF DEATH!
Eisemann Center for Performing Arts, 2351 Performance Drive, Richardson. Through Jan. 22. MCL Grand Theater, 100 N. Charles St., Lewisville. Jan. 26–29. $20–$35. PegasusTheatre.org.

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Films like The Artist and Hugo have spent the last month racking up awards and nominations as they tribute the golden era of black & white movies of yesteryear. But for Kurt Kleinmann, there’s a bit of “been there, still doing that.”

Kleinmann is the star, author and impresario of Pegasus Theatre, which for more than 25 years has produced the signature “Living Black & White” show: A murder-mystery send-up to the melodramas of moviedom’s past. Over 16 plays — all written by Kleinmann, with kitschy titles like Mind Over Murder!, Death Is No Small Change! and The Frequency of Death!, the last of which is now playing at the Eisemann Theatre in Richardson — the galumphing, clueless “world famous detective and aspiring actor” Harry Hunsacker (played by Kleinmann) and his sidekick Nigel Grouse have solved crimes while surrounded by a cast of overwrought hams … all the while wearing makeup and performing in a set that fools the eye into believing you are watching a black and white movie.

Frequency of Death! is a “thorough rewrite,” Kleinmann says, of a previous incarnation of the play, but the signature look remains the same. For director Robert Bartley, that posed some challenges.

“Kurt is always reminding me, ‘You can’t do that.’ For instance, you have to be very aware of the facial area,” Bartley explains. “You can’t have people kissing or touching their faces. Even the set is a problem: You can’t use reflective surfaces, like glass in the doors, or you will be able to see the red EXIT signs in the theater.”

That’s just part of the fun for Bartley though, who spent much of the holidays in Dallas mounting the show for its two-venue run, separated from his partner of 13 years. The sensibility fits with his own aesthetic. Pegasus shows have always contained a camp element, ideally suited for gay audiences accustomed to drag queens basing their characters on Tinseltown divas of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

It’s also a homecoming of sorts for Bartley. A boyish 49 who looks like he still gets carded for buying beer, Bartley cut his teeth on theater in the Metroplex while attending the University of North Texas. For more than two decades, though, he’s made New York his stage, acting and dancing in plays and movies, and launching Broadway Backwards, directing and conceiving of what has become a major fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, attracting talents including Betty Buckley, Neil Patrick Harris and Clay Aiken.

But Dallas feels like home.

“This is where I worked on The Cuban and the Redhead,” he explains over an Atkins-friendly lunch in the gayborhood. Bartley workshopped the musical, about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, in Arlington and Garland from 2004 to 2007, and he couldn’t have been more pleased — then and now.

“The theater community here is as good as ever,” he says. “We had great turnout for our play.” The same is true of Frequency of Death, he insists. Among the cast is Susan Mansur, a Broadway veteran (the original cast of Best Little Whorehouse, the revival of Damn Yankees!) familiar to local audiences as Helen Lawson in Uptown Players’ Valley of the Dolls. (“She drinks throughout our show,” Bartley quips — her character, that is.)

Bartley came of age in the era of AIDS, and says the community has also grown up a lot since then.

“When I was in college, I was the only person there who admitted being gay,” he says. “I think there is more acceptance of the gay and lesbian community — it’s more open.”

Not everything, after all, is black and white … except, of course, a Pegasus show.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 6, 2012.

—  Michael Stephens

2011 Year in Review: Tube

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GAY FAMILY TIES | The two-dad household on ‘Allen Gregory’ takes a big turn from the suburban kookiness of ‘Modern Family.’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

In a year when most people began to feel broadcast and cable television had become all but irrelevant in the era of streaming, the most proletarian of American entertainment still managed some remarkable work — both from returning series and new entries (marked with a •).

10. American Horror Story (FX)• You have to begin watching this series — as you do Ryan Murphy’s other current show, Glee — understanding that it’s a fantasy that does not, and is not intended to, make a lick of sense. Why doesn’t the family in the cursed L.A. “murder house” move out? Why do they constantly lie … and get caught? How can so much drama happen to just a few people? You’re asking for trouble if you think — you’re meant to just go along for this ride, a grotesque riff on Gothic horror movie clichés with a spicy bit of kink added. Jessica Lange as a creepy neighbor rockets into a stratosphere of kook that’s unmissably delicious.

9. Glee (Fox) Murphy’s other series is already showing its age after only after its third season, but whoever expected it would be anything other than what it is, a flash of gay brilliance that couldn’t last longer than a high school career anyway? It remains in the top 10, especially for gay audiences, largely because of the end of last season, which featured touching work by Chris Colfer and Jane Lynch.

8. The Killing (AMC)• A moody mix of Twin Peaks and 24 with a Scandinavian bleakness, this investigation into the death of a girl in Seattle, laden with dread and impenetrable characters who often do the wrong thing, was an addictive mystery. The season finale didn’t quite work, but that only makes me look forward to Season 2.

7. Happy Endings (ABC)•

6. Modern Family (ABC) This one-two punch of queer-friendly sitcoms — as perfect a pairing of half-hours since Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley — show the gay experience from the perspective of boring suburbia and slacker 20-something with wit and true character development between ModFam’s couple Cam and Mitchell and Happy Endings’ gay Oscar Madison, Max.

5. Raising Hope (Fox). The sleeper sitcom hit of last year continues to delight audiences who can detect the sophistication lurking in creator Greg Garcia’s comedy about lower-class denizens. (He did it before with My Name Is Earl.) The clever gay-friendly message is conveyed ironically, but for a story about child-rearing, it’s as raucous as a sitcom can be.

4. RuPaul’s Drag Race (Logo). The third season of Drag Race was just as good as the second (the first was really a training ground for the style). Campy but also incredibly sincere, it’s one of the funniest reality shows ever on TV and one where most of the contestants actually seem to have skills. When Season 4 starts next month, we’ll be glued.

3. Allen Gregory (Fox)• Jonah Hill had, for me, fallen into the Seth Rogen category of overstayed-his-welcome with a repetition comic persona in his largely crass movie roles, but Allen Gregory changed all that for me. A smart, stylish animated sitcom about a pretentious kindergartener and his two-dad family (including a hunky former straight man and an adopted Asian sister) has some of the best jokes about gay characters on any show. Ever.

2. The Walking Dead (AMC)• There is virtually no gay content in this zombie series, just some of the most chilling action sequences ever on TV (and the hottest guy on TV in the totally ripped Jon Bernthal). It’s really the sound editing that gets to you in this drama about the end of world at the hands of ravaging flesh eaters. Who knows where it will go? But you sure wanna find out.

1. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report (Comedy Central). The 12 months leading up to presidential primary season would simply not have been the same without the genius commentary (with Stewart, confrontational; with Colbert, ironic) about the crazed political atmosphere we have found ourselves in. Colbert’s establishing of a SuperPAC, which he actually uses to point out the insanity of our laws, was as mind-blowing as comedy has ever gotten.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 30, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Whatcha watchin’?

Our guide to Christmas movies: ‘War Horse,’ ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’

Screen1

‘War Horse’ opens Christmas Day.

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

There’s something vaguely profane about opening War Horse on Christmas Day. True, it’s a heartwarming family film suitable to share with kids — Spielberg’s most gooily inoffensive film since E.T., in fact — but it’s also a movie where the main character is treated with the same reverence as the Christ Child. I mean that quite literally: From the moment his mare foals, people look at the Thoroughbred Joey with the awed humility of the Magi bestowing frankincense and myrrh.

War Horse, in fact, is so relentless in its nudging, reassuring you, This is a magical horse! This beast is special! Take your eyes off him at your peril!!! that it in fact loses almost all sense of genuine cinemagic. Imagine a comedian who spent more time telling you his jokes are the best and you’ll be wowed by how funny he is, and you approach the counterproductive quality of this movie.

That’s surprising, because if anyone knows how to make wonder seem affectingly cinematic, it’s Spielberg. The moment the scientists see the living dinosaurs roaming about Jurassic Park is justified because freakin’ dinosaurs are walking among us!!! But a maverick quadruped at a livestock auction deserves it? Spielberg is getting soft. This is the most inept heartstring-tugging he’s done since Always, one of his few genuine flops, both commercially and artistically. And for someone who directed one of the great war movies of the modern era (Saving Private Ryan), this one contains tamely mediocre battle scenes. It doesn’t need to be a hard R, but World War I should look at least as harrowing as Saving Private Ryan.

Still, it would be unfair to say War Horse has no merit. The reunion of boy and horse is memorably charming (Hey! You can’t seriously think I’m giving anything away), and Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is staggeringly beautiful and versatile (the finale looks like it was lifted right out of the climax of Gone with the Wind). And Joey — at least, the computer-generated version of him — conveys a lot with a glance of those big eyes. It says a lot when the best performance in a movie is from a 2,000-lb. beast, and Oprah’s nowhere to be found.

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Daniel Craig stars in ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,’ now playing in wide release.

When Stieg Larsson’s first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, debuted, it captured imaginations because it was at once a typical example of genre-fiction — the set-up, a sort of locked-room mystery about a girl who disappeared from a remote Swedish island 40 years earlier, invoked a standard whounnit structure — but also a deeply detailed screed against… well, against a lot of shit Larsson felt passionately about. Corporate control. Violence against women. Personal privacy. Journalistic ethics. By the time you sorted all those things out, you had a novel so plump with plots and subplots, it felt more like Tolstoy than Turow.

The Swedish-language film version, while altogether serviceable, had a rocky time balancing those elements, but this territory is right up director David Fincher’s alley. His English-language remake is almost as bleak as his modern quasi-masterpiece, Se7en, but the topics and the tone? Pure Fincher.

He declares his own stylish mantra during the opening credits: Organic, abstract, even desultory and festishistic images to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ pulsating punk score establishes this as Fincher’s version of a Bond film. (It’s perhaps no coincidence the lead actor in the proposed trilogy is Bond himself, Daniel Craig.) Mechanical, urban, oppressive — welcome to the worlds of Larsson and Fincher.

But The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo doesn’t weigh on you so much as it assaults you with its brazenness. The girl, Lisbeth (Rooney Mara), is a waifish and strange bisexual, antisocial to the point of psychopathic. She is clever but not subtle and without traditional cultural mores, so she has no problem hacking into the computers of industrialists if it suits her.

She eventually teams up with a disgraced journalist, Mikael (Craig), hired by a rich businessman (Christopher Plummer) to solve the enigma of what happened to his great niece on that summer day in 1965. That investigation leads down rabbit holes that uncover a serial killer half a century in the making, fueled by religious fervor and a Fascist past.

The pacing of this version has an energy the Swedish version did not, and Fincher excels during several violent ballets: A subway mugging, a harrowing rape scene (two rapes actually, but that may be saying too much), a chamber of horror torture sequence. He and screenwriter Steven Zaillian also streamline the plot, balancing Larsson’s philosophizing with dramatic tension (though they do tip their hand too soon with one key plot point and rushing some others.

Mara does a lot with a little; her Lisbeth is emotionally stunted but she moves and thinks deftly — she would be at home with Tom Cruise on the next Mission: Impossible. Craig also plays it close to the vest expertly. But the star is really Fincher, whose visually fluidity make you crave the next installment, and the next. It’s like Harry Potter for cynics.

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•online exclusive

For reviews of The Artist, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and A Dangerous Method, visit DallasVoice.com and click Screen.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 23, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas