Sunday, March 27, 2011

Weekend Brunches in the Theatre District: Delta Grill and Mont Blanc

We attend lots of Saturday and Sunday matinees in the theatre district and we’re constantly on the lookout for restaurants in the area where we might enjoy an interesting weekend brunch before settling in for an afternoon’s theatrical entertainment. Here are two we’ve been to recently that we can heartily recommend:

Delta Grill, located on the corner of Ninth Avenue and West 48th Street, serves a wonderful array of Cajun, Creole, Southern and Soul Food. The signature dish on their weekend brunch menu is “Magnolia’s Decadence," consisting of potato stuffed with two eggs, onion, cheddar cheese, scallions and bacon. Delicious and reasonably priced at $11.

Other brunch choices at Delta Grill include their “Bayou Omelet,” with your choice of fillings ranging from andouille sausage, ham and bacon to crawfish tails and more ($11); “French Quarter Toast” with pears, strawberries and country syrup ($10); a “Jambalaya Omelet” ($12); a “Red Beans Omelet” with andouille sausage and cheddar cheese ( $10); and much, much more. If you do got there for brunch, try washing it all down with a bottle of Turbodog, a dark brown strong ale with a sweet chocolate-toffee like flavor, brewed by the Louisiana-based Abita Brewing Company.

Mont Blanc, located less than a block away from Delta Grill on West 48th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, is a strikingly different restaurant but an even better deal if you’re looking for a great weekend brunch. The restaurant has an old world charm and specializes in Swiss, Austrian and Italian food. Its “Weekend Brunch,” prix fixed at just $13.50, is an absolute steal, including not only a variety of entrees but also coffee, tea or herbal tea and a choice of either a bloody Mary, a mimosa or champagne.

What makes Mont Blanc so special is its wide variety of unusual brunch entrees. “Eggs Benedict” (with hollandaise sauce and potatoes) are available with Canadian bacon, or with smoked salmon, or with crab cake. “Specialty Omelets,” all of which also include potatoes, are available in several versions: with shrimp, tomato and parsley, or with Portobello mushrooms and Swiss cheese, or with fondue cheese and scallions. “Frittatas” (again with potatoes) also come in three versions: Italian Tomato with basil, mozzarella cheese, and penne; Greco with spinach, mushroom, and goat cheese; and Norwegian with smoked salmon, onions, capers and asparagus.

If you do go to Mont Blanc, the only problem you’ll have is deciding what to order. But based on our experience, whatever choice you make is bound to work out just fine.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sushi, Sartre and Senior Citizens

I cannot think of anywhere better than New York City in which to retire. Sure, rents are high and the weather can be less than ideal at times, but when you consider all the city’s advantages, any such shortcomings pale by comparison. It’s in New York that you’ll find the world’s best medical care (and at very affordable rates, at least for those of us on Medicare), heavily subsidized public transportation for senior citizens (half-price bus and subway fares), a variety of ethnic restaurants (Indian, Thai, Japanese, et al.) with menus offering ample lunches for less than $10, and, most important of all, at least to me, the world’s greatest concentration of cultural activities at discount rates (including museums, theatres, concerts, operas, movies, lectures, college courses, and more). As long as you’ve got a place to hang your hat, the Big Apple can’t be beat.

My friend Sam put it something like this (I’m paraphrasing here but I think I got it right): “It takes just four things to make for a great retirement: (1) good health, (2) enough money to be financially secure in being able to do the things you’d like to do (which doesn’t necessarily mean that you’d need sufficient funds to embark on a luxury cruise around the world or to maintain homes on Park Avenue and the French Riviera, but it does mean that you’d need enough money not to worry about paying the rent or buying theatre tickets or vacationing domestically or abroad from time to time), (3) a loving partner, and (4) sufficient interests of your own to keep you active.” Sam wasn’t just talking about retiring in New York City when he said all that but I fully agree with him and I know of no place better than New York City to put his ideas into practice.

Hunter College has an incredible program available for senior citizens: for just $80 a semester, a senior citizen can audit one or two courses in the undergraduate school. When auditing a course, he writes no papers, takes no exams, gets no grades (all plusses in my book) and receives no academic credit, but he does get to participate in class with all the other students (most of whom are young enough to be his children or grandchildren) who are enrolled in that course - which helps to keep him young in spirit and on his toes. Last year, Sam and I audited two courses in the Philosophy Department – (1) Great Philosophers: Modern and Contemporary and (2) Philosophy, Science and Culture – and this year, joined by our friend Julian, the three of us are auditing a course in Existentialism.

Now I’ve got lots of disagreements with Existentialism – I think all three of us do – but there’s one thing I’ll say for it: it’s certainly on the right track in affirming Free Will, denying the most extreme versions of determinism, and urging the acceptance of responsibility for one’s actions. So far we’ve touched on Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger and we’ve just started on Sartre – who at least is more palatable than the others. As an individual, he had his flaws but he was neither a religious nut nor a megalomaniac nor a Nazi and, while his writing may be dense at times, his basic premise, that “existence precedes essence” is one that I not only can live with but one that I can wholeheartedly endorse. In the final analysis, we are all responsible for making ourselves who and what we are. Without denying the facticity (Sartre’s word, not mine) of differential genetic endowments, economic and social influences, and racial, religious, gender and other forms of discrimination, when push comes to shove it’s still the individual who must take primary responsibility for his actions and for who and what he is.

Sam and I attended class yesterday afternoon (as we do on Mondays and Wednesdays although Julian missed this one) but this time we arranged to have our wives – Clarissa, Sue and Barbara - join us for dinner after class. Our class ended at 5:25 PM and we walked half a dozen blocks to Wajima, a small Japanese restaurant that Sam and I discovered in our wanderings one lunch hour between classes last year. The restaurant has terrific sushi and sashimi and, if you enjoy raw fish (as Sue and I do), it can’t be beat. And, as a bonus, the restaurant offers a great prix fixe pre-theatre dinner special for just $20, consisting of appetizer, soup, entrée and dessert.. The restaurant has terrific sushi and sashimi and, if you enjoy raw fish (as Sue and I do), it can’t be beat. And, as a bonus, the restaurant offers a great prix fixe pre-theatre dinner special for just $20, consisting of appetizer, soup, entrée and dessert.

Dinner was excellent (as I’d expected) and the company was even better. A lovely ending to a productive day and a major uptick from how we might have fared had we all retired to Miami Beach, spent the day at golf or shuffleboard, and then simply availed ourselves of one of that town’s ubiquitous early bird specials.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Off Off Broadway: Savage in Limbo

In 1984, when he was just 34 years old himself, John Patrick Shanley wrote Savage in Limbo about five 32 year old losers in a Bronx bar, a play which might almost be looked upon as sort of a cross between Sartre’s No Exit and William Inge’s Bus Stop. The play was not in a class with either the Inge or Sartre work and might have been totally forgotten were it not for the fact that twenty years later, in 2004, Shanley wrote Doubt: A Parable, a far better play which took Broadway by storm, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Actress, Best Featured Actress and Best Direction in 2005, going on to become a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. But once Doubt appeared, interest was renewed in Shanley’s earlier work which explains the current revival of Savage in Limbo by Rosalind Productions, The Platform Group and The Drilling Company.

This is not a bad play by any means: it is amusing and has some interesting things to say. And this production is well done, nicely directed, and boasts some fine performances. But the play is likely to prove of more interest as an historical relic to those theatre aficionados who enjoy tracing the evolution of a playwright’s work than as a fully realized show in its own right.

The play is set in a Bronx bar in which five 32 year olds get to bemoan their existences, commit themselves to change their lives and, predictably, persist in being just who they’ve been all along, changing little about their actual lives while paying lip service to the idea of change. The characters themselves are similarly predictable: April White (Kendall Rileigh), an alcoholic; Denise Savage (Abigail Rose Solomon), a disappointed virgin; Linda Rotunda (Shara Ashley Zeiger), a slut; Tony Aronica (Brian Patrick Murphy), Linda’s not very bright boyfriend; and Murk (Maxwell Zener), the bartender/proprietor. All are 32 years old, April, Denise and Linda having been grade school classmates years ago, and all lead existentially empty lives.

As the play develops, Linda is distraught at Tony’s having left her; April sinks deeper into her alcoholic haze; Denise seeks to convince Tony to relieve her of her burden of virginity; Tony discovers the sexual appeal of “ugly” women; and Murk attempts to keep everything on an even keel, no matter how great an effort it takes. In performing their roles, Brian Patrick Murphy is truly outstanding as Tony and both Kendall Rileigh (as April) and Shara Ashley Zeiger (as Linda) are equally good.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Broadway: Arcadia

Tom Stoppard is arguably the world’s greatest living playwright and Arcadia, his masterwork, is widely recognized as one of the greatest plays of our time. Originally produced at the Royal National Theatre in London in1993 and directed by Trevor Nunn, it won the 1993 Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for Best Play that year. When the first New York production opened two years later with an entirely different cast, it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and was nominated for the 1995 Tony Award. And two years ago, when the play was revived in London under the direction of David Leveaux, it received even more glowing reviews than it had 16 years earlier, thus setting the stage for its eagerly anticipated current return to Broadway with a new cast under the direction of Leveaux.

The theatre-going public’s understandably high expectations for this NY revival are largely, but not completely, realized. To be sure, this remains an extraordinary work. Stoppard is a theatrical wizard and polymath whose plays involve the very biggest, deepest and most complex philosophical and scientific ideas, ranging from chaos theory to determinism to free will, from Fermat’s Last Theorem to fractals to computer algorithms, from Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics and entropy to the irreversibility of time, from Byron and poetry to landscape design and botany – ultimately arriving at man’s most fundamental ontological and epistemological questions regarding the very nature of life, death and reality itself. And if all that sounds daunting, never fear: Stoppard is such a literary genius that you’ll probably find him bringing more clarity to those subjects than you’re likely to have gotten from all the lectures and university courses in mathematics, physics and philosophy you may have attended over the years. And there’s little doubt in my mind that you’ll find Stoppard’s presentations far more entertaining to boot.

And this is, for the most part, a fine production. The play’s direction is superb, the sets and costumes are first-rate, and several of the performances are truly outstanding. Both Tom Riley as Septimus Hodge and Billy Crudup as Bernard Nightingale, in particular, deserve to be singled out for their remarkable performances. But good as the production is, it is not perfect. For one thing, the first act gets underway too slowly and really should be shortened and tightened up. (In a recent interview, Stoppard himself admitted that he would like to take three minutes out of the first act but was having difficulty figuring out how to do it; here’s hoping he solves his problem, perhaps even excising a few minutes more than that.)

My second and only other real misgiving about this production relates to the casting of Bel Powley as Thomasina Coverly. She is making her Broadway debut in Arcadia, having won critical acclaim for her role as Maggie in Tusk Tusk at the Royal Court in London, but the talent she apparently exhibited there is not in evidence here. Her voice is much too shrill and off-putting, she tends to swallow her lines, and she does not really capture her character’s aristocratic nature. She is only one of a dozen actors in the play but, unfortunately, the plot really revolves around her, so that her shortcomings have a disproportionately negative impact upon the production as a whole.

The play is set in Sidley Park, a stately English home in both the years 1809–1812 and in the present (1993 in the original production and, presumably, in 2011 in this latest revival). In 1809, Thomasina Coverly (Bel Powley), a teenage prodigy, apprehends a number of remarkable mathematical and physical truths on her own, including the laws of thermodynamics, chaos theory and fractals, while her tutor Septimus Hodge, (Tom Riley), is engaged in an illicit romantic liaison with Charity Chater, the wife of Ezra Chater (David Turner), a second-rate poet who, upon discovering his wife’s dalliances, challenges Septimus to a duel. (Hodge is also a friend of Lord Byron who, as it turns out, also is staying at the house at the time and who also gets to sleep with Charity.) (Neither Charity nor Byron ever actually appear in the play, but the importance of their roles cannot be overestimated.)

In the present, Hannah Jarvis (Lia Williams), a writer, is investigating the history of a hermit who may once have lived on the grounds, while Bernard Nightingale (Billy Crudup), a literature professor, is investigating the very period in the life of Byron when he was in Sidley Park. As matters unfold, the truths about what actually occurred in Sidley Park two centuries earlier is gradually disclosed.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Off Off Broadway: The Killing Room

In 2009, One Year Lease Company commissioned Daniel Keene, a highly regarded Australian playwright, to write an original play inspired by the Greek myth of Atreus and Thyestes and The Killing Room is the result. In Greek mythology, Tantalus hosted a dinner for the gods and cooked his son, Pelops, into the feast. The gods were so angered that they condemned Tantalus to an eternity of suffering and restored Pelops to life. Pelops then fathered twin sons, Atreus and Thyestes, who, subsequent to the death of their father, killed their half-brother who had been made heir to Pelops’ throne, agreeing to share the ancestral kingdom between them. But it was not to be. Atreus and Thyestes were quickly at each other’s throats: first Thyestes had an affair with Atreus’ wife, then Atreus banned Thyestes from the kingdom and, finally, Atreus concocted a plan similar to that of Tantalus: he prepared a feast for Thyestes into which he cooked Thyestes’ sons.

Keene’s take on all this was to write a play about the end of the world in which twin brothers, Cy (Christopher Baker) and Ed (David Deblinger), ancient, shrunken and constantly bickering, sustain their existence through blood transfusions and organ transplants. Having been responsible for the near total destruction of the world in their insatiable thirst for power in their youth, the brothers now are the only ones remaining alive on Earth – other than the doctor and nurse who care for them, their wives, and their two children.

On February 26, I posted a generally negative review of Nursing, the third play in Adam Rapp’s The Hallway Trilogy, despite my recognition of Rapp’s literary skill and the underlying talents of that play’s performers. My reaction to One Year Lease Theater Company’s production of The Killing Room, now playing at Teatro Circulo on East 4th Street, is similar.

Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and Eugene Ionesco have had considerable influence upon Keene and there are occasional moments in The Killing Room when one imagines that Keene may prove to be a worthy successor to them. Indeed, one might argue that, as an addition to the absurdist canon, The Killing Room is well written, even if it is obscure, nihilistic and ambiguous because, after all, aren’t obscurantism, nihilism and ambiguity the very essence of the Theatre of the Absurd?

Sorry, but I can’t buy that. In The Killing Room, Keene seems to be more derivative and imitative of Beckett, Pinter and Ionesco than simply influenced by them, this work being more a caricature of their plays than a worthy addition to the absurdist canon. And it is a fundamentally distasteful work. (To his credit, Keene at least didn’t feel it necessary to resort to gross scatological scenes, gratuitous nudity and irrelevant sexual situations in relating his tale [as Rapp did in Nursing], but that really is damning with faint praise.) As a whole, the play still is disgusting, bloody and gross, with inadequate literary justification for being so, and its ambiguities, particularly in regard to the play’s ending (when one really has absolutely no idea of what is happening) is insulting to the audience’s intelligence.

Having said all that, given the play as it was written, the director, Nick Flint, did as good a job as anyone might have expected and, similarly, the actors – particularly Baker, Deblinger and Babis Gousias as the Doctor – performed admirably in the roles written for them. But to what avail? It still all represented, in my opinion, a considerable waste of theatrical talent.

It is evident, even after seeing this play, that One Year Lease Theater Company is an intelligent, well-intentioned, ambitious and talented troupe and I look forward to seeing their next production – but with high hopes that the company will select a more promising vehicle through which to display its talents and that it will change course in a more tasteful direction.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Off Off Broadway: Arrah-na-Pogue

We've been spending a lot of time recently going to Off Off Broadway shows in the East and West Villages (Iphigenia at Aulis, Besharet, The Hallway Trilogy) but on Friday we traveled in the opposite direction - all the way up to The Storm Theatre at The Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame near Columbia University to attend a performance of Arrah-na-Pogue (Arrah of the Kiss) Or, the Wicklow Wedding.  And we're really glad that we did.  This was one of the best shows we've seen in a while.

Arrah-na-Pogue, written by Dion Boucicault in 1865, is a wonderfully uplifting entertainment suitable for the entire family that is too infrequently staged in America and deserves to be better known in this country. A joyous, adventurous, romantic Irish comedy-drama, it has all the ingredients one seeks in the theatre and too seldom finds: charming tales of love (requited and unrequited), romance, marriage, honor, fidelity and betrayal; swashbuckling escapades; and causes and relationships that both men and women are willing to die for. It is Damon and Pythias, Robin Hood, Casablanca and King Arthur, all rolled into one, set during the time of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, expressed in the most lyrical language that the Irish seem to have such a flair for, and punctuated at just the right moments by a rollicking performance of an Irish step dance by Jennie McGuinness and a lovely rendition of a “The Wearing of the Green” by Michelle Kafel.

Christine Bullen and Jonathan Blakeley.  Photo by Michael Abrams Photography

Now being presented by the Storm Theatre at The Theatre of the Church of Notre Dame (a very well-designed thrust-stage theatre in the church’s basement), the play centers around Arrah Meelish (Nicola Murphy), nick-named Arrah-na-Pogue (Arrah of the Kiss) for the kiss she once bestowed upon her sweetheart, Shaun the Post (Phil Mills). Unbeknownst to him, Arrah has been providing sanctuary to Beamish Mac Coul (Jonathan Blakeley), a leader of the Rebellion who is attempting to escape from Ireland with his sweetheart, Fanny Power (Christine Bullen). When Michael Feeny (Paul Nugent), a traitorous, disreputable process server, happens upon Beamish’s concealment by Arrah and betrays them both to the British authorities, all hell breaks loose. Beamish escapes, Arrah is questioned, Fanny misconstrues Beamish’s relationship with Arrah, Shaun rises to the occasion, and Colonel Bagenal O’Grady (Ted McGuinness), who also is in love with Fanny, seeks everyone’s salvation with the assistance of the British secretary (Spencer Aste)

The play’s success is more a function of the script itself than anything else: it is well written, charmingly plotted (albeit a bit hokey, to be sure), and just a great deal of fun. But having said that, credit must also go to the director, Peter Dobbins, who used the theatre’s space in the most imaginative fashion. The entire cast also does a terrific job, especially Murphy and Mills, as the most naive and devoted of lovers who bring not only passion but also comedy to their relationship; Bullen and Blakely, whose more realistic take on life provides a fine contrast to that of Murphy and Mills; McGuinness, whose expression of paternalistic compassion and selflessness is finely tuned; Aste, whose deftly wry depiction of the secretary is just splendid; and Joie Bauer who plays to perfection the role of Major Coffin, a cold-hearted British Officer.

But the most outstanding performance of all is that provided by Nugent who plays the role of the villain, Michael Feeny as if he were a sleazy, serpentine leprechaun-ish creature. He is perfect as the character you love to hate and the production wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without him.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Off Off Broadway: Besharet

Currently being staged at the 9th Space Theater, Besharet by Chana Porter is an extraordinarily complex work - drawing on Jewish mysticism and folklore in its exploration of some of life’s biggest issues, among them truth, love, honesty, faith, maternity, birth and death, loyalty, gender identification, sexuality and more. It is amazing to realize that this work was written by a young woman in her mid-20s and Ms Porter is to be congratulated for what she has accomplished.

Early in the play, Ruth (Olivia Rorick) explains to Eli (MacLeod Andrews) that -

“Besharet means soul mate. Your other half. Also, it can be used as a verb. Saying that something is besharet means it was meant to be.”

Which, of course, makes it clear right from the start that the play is about what it means to be besharet in both senses of the word - although it is a good deal less obvious exactly who may be besharet to whom, just whose destinies are besharet, or, indeed, even how whatever it is that is besharet will evolve.

As the play begins, Samuel Cohen (William Tatlock Green), an observant Jewish attorney, is good-humoredly bantering with his law partner, Renee Watson (Tia Stivala), when they are interrupted by the arrival of Eli, a new employee sent to them by their employment agency. There is something otherworldly about Eli and his arrival seems to portend something mysterious or even sinister. When Samuel invites him to his home to share Sabbath dinner with his wife, Ruth, and himself, the mystery deepens.

Renee is pregnant by her husband, Tim, but just how enamored of him she might be seems open to question; surely it is not they who are each other’s “besharets.” Ruth is eager to have a baby with Samuel but Samuel seems quite disinclined to accommodate her; while he is solicitous of her health and well-being, he is averse to even touching her intimately, let alone having sex with her, and while he does, at one point, refer to her as “my besharet,” his words do not ring true. Might Renee and Samuel be the true “besharets” or is Eli Ruth’s ‘besharet,’ or Renee’s, or even Samuel’s? Or is the “besharet” of the play’s title someone we may not even have met? The possible permutations and combinations abound but there are no easy answers.

And who, actually, is Eli? He appears to be something more than a man and yet, at the same time, something less. Is he a Golem? Or a Dybbuk? As Ruth explains it -

“A Golem is a creature made out of clay. The Rabbi would make him in a time of great need for the Jews. He would breathe the secret name of God into him, and the Golem would come alive….the Golem doesn’t have a soul. He’s just a vessel—a vessel for other people’s intentions….He was supposed to be a protector, to right wrongs. But at the end of every story it goes horribly wrong—he ends up destroying the town and killing his creator.”

And -

“A Dybbuk is a living person who gets possessed by a spirit—the soul of a dead person.”

Or is Eli an Angel from Heaven, sent by God to help Ruth get the baby she so desires, much like the Angel sent down by God to Sarah and Abraham in Biblical times?

Eventually, it all does get sorted out and we are provided with the answers we are seeking.

I thoroughly enjoyed the play as Ms Porter wrote it: the intricacies of its plot, the development of its characters, the insights into those characters’ psyches, the unexpected turns of events, and the resolutions of its mysteries. But, as in often true of younger writers, Ms Porter may have put more into the play than was necessary or even desirable. The play’s underlying story lines were more than sufficient to sustain her audience’s interest without her gratuitous addition of allusions to the Holocaust, homosexuality, lesbianism, transvestitism, and oral sex. Shortening and tightening up the play by leaving out some of that stuff might have made it even better.

One last small nit-pick: the complexities of the play require an inordinately large number of scenes and, given the limited resources available to Off Off Broadway theatres, those scene changes proved difficult to accomplish smoothly. Had the play been produced on Broadway or even Off Broadway, some sort of rotating stage set might have been designed, allowing for more seamless scene transitions but, as it was, the play’s scene changes required the actors themselves to open and close convertible sofas and move and rearrange furniture, in a rather less than professional and distracting manner.

But those are minor quibbles, at most. The bottom line is that Ms Porter is a very talented writer destined to have a significant impact upon the theatre. I think that’s besharet.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Lunch at Thai Terminal in the East Village

We were back in the East Village yesterday to see Besharet by Chana Porter at 9th Space Theatre (which I’ll be reviewing here tomorrow) and we stopped in at Thai Terminal at 349 East 12th Street for lunch. The restaurant is small and isn’t much on ambience: it’s furnished like a diner or a waiting room in an airport terminal (whence the name, I imagine). But the food is excellent and reasonably priced and the service was very good, which made it all worthwhile.

Each "Lunch Special" consists of a salad, an appetizer and an entrée – all for about $9. Sue had the salad, followed by two pieces of crab and shrimp roll as an appetizer, and then the shrimp pad thai as an entree. I had the same salad, followed by four pieces of chive pancake as an appetizer, and then a bowl of red curry with beef over rice. It was all first rate and we expect to eat there again.

If you’re in the area and in the mood for Thai food, here's a place I’d recommend.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Thursday in the East Village

One of our favorite activities when traveling abroad simply entails wandering about an unfamiliar neighborhood with no clear destination in mind, partaking, perhaps, of street food as the spirit moves us, or just popping in and out of random pubs and cafes, absorbing our surroundings, and trusting in serendipity to make the whole experience worthwhile. And yet, much as we enjoy such experiences when out of the country, we seldom spend time like that when we’re in the States, and I’m not really sure why. So last Thursday, when we found ourselves with several hours to kill in downtown Manhattan, we decided to treat several blocks in the East Village as if they constituted an unfamiliar neighborhood in a foreign country and play at being strangers in a strange land.

We visited our littlest grandkids, Macey and Jonah, at their home on 5th Avenue and 14th Street, around noon that day (as we usually do on Thursdays), but our visit was foreshortened since the kids had a date to go swimming at 2:30 PM. We, on the other hand, had tickets to the opening night performance of Iphigenia at Aulis at The Wild Project on East 3rd Street at 8 PM that night. So we decided just to wend our way from 5th Avenue and 14th Street to Avenue A and East 3rd Street, however the spirit moved us.

We were a bit hungry, having skipped lunch to spend time with the grandkids, so we figured we’d stop in for a bite somewhere along the way. We both enjoy most Asian food and anticipated coming upon some small Thai, Chinese or Japanese restaurant en route. But then we happened on Song 7.2 (so named because it is located on the corner of 2nd Avenue and East 7th Street), a Korean restaurant which bills itself as having “The Best Korean food in NYC.” We hadn’t had Korean food in years and there are few Korean food restaurants in our neck of the woods on the Upper East Side, so we decided to try it. It was not a bad decision.

Lunch is served at Song 7.2 between noon and 4 PM but by then it was close to 3 PM and the restaurant was relatively empty. No matter – the restaurant was clean, different and inexpensive. We both opted for Bento boxes on the Lunch Special: Sue got the sliced beef and I got the pork belly and both were good but not great (it really is an overstatement to call this “the best Korean food in NYC” but it wasn’t bad. Both orders came with side dishes of kimchi, spinach, soup, salad, steamed egg pancake, fresh carrot juice (as a palate cleanser) and green tea. The service was terrific and, all things considered, it was fun and we’re glad we went.

When we left the restaurant, it was still early and, after walking for another few blocks, we were a bit cold, so we decided to duck into someplace for a quick cup of coffee – which explains how we ended up at a McDonalds on 1st Avenue where we had two cups of coffee for $1.72. We felt as if we’d slipped through a time warp - paying only 86¢ apiece for our coffees! –and the feeling was reinforced as we looked about us. It was as if we had entered a senior seniors’ community center and, though septuagenarians ourselves, we felt like youngsters in the restaurant. The people around us all seemed to be hanging our as if they were in their neighborhood pub, nursing coffees rather than beers, with little else on the tables before them, and we found it hard to fathom how that particular McDonald’s outlet survived economically.

But the day was not yet over. We continued on our trek to the theatre although it was only about 5 PM and we still had about three hours to kill. Then, serendipitously, we found it – the restaurant-bar that made our whole excursion worthwhile. There on Avenue A, between East 2nd and East 3rd Streets, was Mary O’s, a cool, stylish, inviting restaurant-bar, with a limited menu in the window that just suited our needs of the moment: onion soup for Sue and Buffalo chicken strips for me (there was little doubt in my mind that I’d be able to snag a Guinness as well once we were inside and I was right).

Looking through the window into the restaurant, we saw few patrons – it was too late for lunch, too early for dinner, and the cocktail hour hadn’t quite begun – but we didn’t let that dissuade us. Within minutes, we were seated at a comfortable table with Sue’s soup and my chicken and Guinness before us and it was delightful. The restaurant’s ambience is eclectically modern - mostly Italian modern, I’d say, and yet it’s clearly an Irish pub with no pretensions. We couldn’t quite figure out what made it all work so well until we met the proprietor, Mary O’Halloran - and then we understood.

Mary, the owner of the restaurant bar, stopped at our table to chat and she really is an extraordinary woman . A comely Irish lass, young enough to be our daughter, she, herself, is mother to five children, ranging in age from 1 ½ years to 7 ½ years. How she manages to run a successful restaurant and care for five young children is beyond me, but she does it and my hat’s off to her! And, get this, she does it all while her husband, a West Coast longshoreman, is away for weeks at a time on one of the outermost Aleutian islands off the coast of Alaska! Meanwhile, to keep busy, Mary volunteers at her kids’ school. (The next time I complain about being too busy or not having enough time to do something, just remind me of Mary and I’ll shut up, I promise.) Anyway, Mary is an absolute delight – and we had a wonderful time chatting with her. (She and Sue, by the way, have at least one overwhelming interest in common – their child-centeredness – which seems to be the one interest that’s sufficient to bring any two people together, no matter what their other political, social, economic, ethnic or other differences might be).

Before we left Mary O’s for the theatre, Mary mentioned that the restaurant runs an Irish music entertainment on the first Wednesday in the month. We just missed the one in March but we’re sure going to try to get to the one scheduled for April.

And yes, in case you were wondering, we made it to the theatre on time and thoroughly enjoyed that too. I reviewed the play we saw, Iphigenia in Aulis, in my last post.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Off Off Broadway: Iphigenia at Aulis

Iphigenia at Aulis, the last play Euripides wrote, was first staged posthumously 2,400 years ago, a year after the playwright’s death. The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble has now selected that play, in a superb translation by W. S. Merwin and George E. Dimock, Jr., as the first work to stage in its planned three year celebration of ancient Greek drama. And we are delighted that it did: we saw the play yesterday and it is an excellent production of a wonderful classic, well-staged and professionally performed. It really deserves a longer run than it will be getting.

In the play, Helen, the wife of Menelaos, King of Sparta (John Lenartz), has run off to Troy with Paris, a Trojan prince. All of the kings and leaders of Greece are bound by oath to join Menelaos in a war against Troy to retrieve Helen. Agamemnon, Menelaos’ brother and King of Mycenae (Joseph J. Menino), has been appointed commander of the combined Greek forces but they are stuck at Aulis, on the Aegean Sea, unable to set sail for Troy, because there is no wind to fill the sails of their ships. Kalchas, a soothsayer, has suggested a solution: according to Kalchas, the goddess Artemis has withheld the winds and has demanded the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia (Kelli Holsopple) before she will allow Agamemnon and his troops to set sail for Troy.

Initially, Menelaos decides to accept Artemis’ terms and sacrifice his daughter. To achieve that end, he seeks to trick Iphigenia into joining him at Aulis by sending a message to Clytemnestra, his wife and Iphigenia’s mother (Elise Stone), informing her that he has arranged for the marriage of Iphigenia to Achilles, the greatest warrior in Greece (Josh Tyson). Agamemnon then changes his mind and sends a messenger to forestall Iphigenia’s arrival at Aulis, but it is too late; she has already arrived with her mother. For his part, Menelaos is just as vacillating: at first he is outraged that Agamemnon would consider sending Iphigenia back; he considers that a betrayal of Greece. But on further consideration, he avows that perhaps the retrieval of an unfaithful woman, Helen, does not justify the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s innocent daughter after all. Even Iphigenia, herself, changes her position, at first fearful and angry at the thought of being killed but ultimately looking upon it as her opportunity to do the noble thing in serving Greece.

This play can be appreciated on many levels. It is, for one thing, an early pacifist work, questioning the wisdom of going to war over one woman’s infidelity. On another level, it raises a variety of philosophical questions relating to the existence or non-existence of the gods, the legitimacy of soothsaying and fortune telling, motherhood as the overriding force in a woman’s life, and the relative freedom of slaves and masters. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, it delves into man’s psychological and behavioral ambivalences, rationalizations and hypocrisies.

The entire cast does a solid job, as we’ve come to expect of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, but Elise Stone, as Clytemnestra, and John Lenartz as Menelaos are especially deserving of praise. The set is very simple and very effective: it is a transparent platform set above a sandy stage, allowing the audience to visualize the players on the beach at Aulis while conjuring up the concept of a netherworld or Hades beneath their feet. Indeed, my only negative reaction to the play related to the lighting: I thought that the lights were, literally, a glaring distraction that did not illuminate but detracted from the production. But that is a small criticism of an otherwise fine production.