Archive for the ‘food’ Category

Apollo’s Girl

July 26, 2016


apollo and lyre



Playing Now/Coming Soon..

The Witness (IFC Center)
The Kitty Geneovese case (as it was known at the time) was one of those puzzles of a murder that was never quite solved, and never went away. Since 1964, it has remained emblematic of urban reluctance to “get involved” in unpleasant situations. No one wants to be drawn into the witnessviolence, to be at risk for complications. Better to stay aloof.

When Genevese was raped and attacked twice on her way home in the middle of the night and died of her wounds, the urban legend is that 38 neighbors heard her cries for help and did nothing; that she might have been saved if only they had run to her aid, or called the police. Eventually, a serial criminal (William Moseley, who confessed to having killed three women and raped eight)) was arrested for the crime and sentenced to 20 years-to-life. He escaped (briefly) and managed to take hostages and rape a woman before being captured and returned to jail. Despite earning a college degree while incarcerated, his 18 requests for parole were denied; he died, still in prison, earlier this year. Those are the basic facts of the case.

Kitty’s brother William Genovese became obsessed with his sister’s murder and began to collect every william genovesedocument and account he could find over the decades. When he retired from a career as CEO for several educational and mental health organizations, he pursued his obsession full-time for a decade and dug deeply into his archives, finally tracking down and interviewing many of the original witnesses and officials involved. He emerged with information that contradicted much of the case’s received wisdom, and as a highly intelligent, appealing and surprisingly objective investigator. It is William Genovese who is the center of gravity of this complex and ultimately fascinating film. The film itself reveals its secrets precisely when they are needed and (as an example of excellent storytelling and editing) its collaborative nature is mirrored in the credits, which cite Genovese, two writer/editors, and writer/director James Solomon behind the addictive ebb and flow. Solomon’s resume attests to his affinity for unraveling mysteries  (The Conspirator and 100 Centre Street, The Practice, The Bronx is Burning); in The Witness he has found just the right stuff in both his subject and his on-screen protagonist.  

Summertime (FSLC: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center)
With its theme of intense love between two women—especially since one of them is named Carole—it’s hard to avoid comparing Catherine Corsini’s Summertime to last season’s Carol, a mainstream feature on the summertimesame topic. Yet Carol, despite its outstanding performances and really stunning production remained, for me, a tale worthy of respect for its achievements, but always a bit chilly under its high-gloss surface. Summertime, on the other hand, while certainly beautiful to behold, was on fire with emotion and the caprices of real-life women with deep conflicts (for different reasons) over the connection that brings them together. It’s definitely not because of the external differences in their lives when they meet, or that they regret their surrender to one another as often as they are torn by it, but the gritty reality (with its constant shifts and contradictions) that frames their every move into, and away from, the flame. Its evocation of city and countryside in the France of the 1970s is imersive. And both Izia Higelin and Cėcile de France capture your attention and your sympathy full-time.

Our Little Sister (Lincoln Plaza)
In a summer rife with heat, humidity and Big Films that Go Blam, umimachi diaryBlam, Blam, give thanks to SONY for releasing the latest treasure from Hirokazu Kore-eda. Although it’s adapted from Unimachi Diary
(a graphic novel by Yoshida Akimi), any resemblance to most graphic novel adaptations ceases there. 
It doesn’t burn, but glows steadily with a gem-like flame that draws you in with understatement and, with its revelations of plot and character, keeps your attention until you’re hooked.

our little sister 2
What’s most notable is its delicacy in handling contemporary issues: multiple marriages and their effect on children; adultery between two most engaging adults who must make decisions about their future; how families bond (or don’t) and deal with adversity and emotional pain. It’s a long list; what makes it so irresistible is how you come to realize that its power is generated by subtlety and the accuracy of Kore-eda’s vision. He’s a master psychologist who never raises his voice. But oh, how he gets to you, and how you miss him and his cast when the film is over…..

Ants on a Shrimp (July 29, IFC Center)
As a devotee of food porn who has not had the luck to be in ants on a shrimpCopenhagen eating at Noma, I recommend watching Ants on a Shrimp to see how a sea change for a famous restaurant affects its staff and its menu. Early on, when Noma’s alpha male and founder, René Redzepi, rationalizes this risky idea with “Let’s have fun!…Every day it’s a grind. Why don’t we do it in a new place and just have fun with it.?” You know what’s coming next…

redzepWithout the Gallic over-the-top emotions and desserts of Kings of Pastry, Ants goes for a gradual reveal of the rules of its game, which chef René Redzepi keeps upping, leaving you with an urge to check your air miles to see if there’s any way you can get to Noma’s five-week pop-up shop in Tokyo before it goes home. It wouldn’t matter if you did, though, since they have only 2,000 places for the entire run, and a waitlist of 58,000 in advance of opening night. Not all of it is fun (surprise!), but watching him stretch himself and his staff as they pull it together becomes hypnotic.

Director Maurice Dekkers is no stranger to food; his long-running hit TV series Keueringdienst van Waarde (Food Unwrapped) has been delving into the origins and preparation of what we eat since 2003, making him the logical partner for Redzepi’s insatiable and nomaunorthodox approach to food. We watch Redzepi and his multinational crew invade a forest to feel the burn and taste the foliage as they learn to avoid poisonous mushrooms. Back at their hotel in Tokyo, we watch them practice their philosophy and explore new combinations of flavors. How to merge Japanese ingredients and traditions with Danish (well, Redzepi is actually Macedonian) chutzpah? It’s tough going, but you suspect they will figure out a 14-course solution just in time. What’s fascinating is how Redzepi runs his ship: he encourages each associate chef to invent dishes without constraint. Then everyone tastes them and edits their fate; opinions are welcome, but Redzepi has the final say. Cool rules in his workplace: “Don’t let any frustrations out—just let them eat you up from the inside.”

Being a process lover by nature, I was totally absorbed by the intensity of the hand arbeit behind every dish. Not only must it pass collective tastebud muster, but also remain noma shrimpa miniature work of art throughout its very short life on plate and in bowl. But wait: is that shrimp with ants actually moving? Actually, yes. (We are assured by Redzepi that it will go invitingly limp once you bite into it.) And in a spirit of journalistic candor, I must also report that a few snapping turtles are harmed in the course of dinner preps. Nevertheless, when showtime comes, the lucky guests arrive to pass an evening in the company of the staff (creating their meal in an open kitchen), before they dig into flora, fauna and flesh. And you can just let yourself go for the last five minutes—Redzepi narrates over a parade of dishes being presented to the crowd; nature’s bounty with interventions. It’s definitely a happy ending. Unless you’re a shrimp or a turtle.

Hieronymous Bosch: Touched by the Devil (July 27, Film Forum)
If you’ve got it, as they say, flaunt it. And that’s exactly what this gorgeous, international thriller does from start to finish as science and technology reveal the secrets of art, the thrill of the chase and the high-stakes poker behind a Dutch blockbuster, “Jheronimus Bosch: Visions of Genius”.bosch poster

The opening image is a full-screen shot of a two eyes scouring a work with a light and magnifier tube, caressing its every line and brushstroke to make sure they were produced by the master himself. It’s only one of the weapons used by a crack team of specialists scouring the world to vet and assemble as many of Bosch’s paintings as they can beg, borrow, and steal. Their goal: to create a 500th anniversary celebration in Bosch’s home town (Den Bosch). It will include a son-et-lumiere in the town square, several Bosch-themed boat tours, and a feast of art and performance throughout the city. They must succeed, since there are only 25 known Bosches in the world, and not one of them hangs in Den Bosch. They have five years to make a miracle.

Bosch’s canvases teem with tiny perfectly-executed mobs of humanity in extremis. The artist was consumed with visions of damnation and the darkness of the human spirit. His little people and fantastic hybrid animals have found countless ways to commit unspeakable acts on their fast track to hell, all of it rendered in brilliant color and obsessive detail; all of it the product of a raging imagination. It’s easy to see why the paintings have been jealously guarded and prized by art historians and the public alike for centuries.

gardenWhile tracking down the art and analyzing it for authenticity would have been a good story in itself, its escalating subtext is all about just how to pry it from Madrid, Venice and private collectors and magic it back to Holland. And that’s where the real suspense comes in. The team has a few aces up its collective sleeves: the ability to restore the paintings (however brilliant, they are, after all 500 years old) in exchange for securing their loan; the parlous chess game of offering Dutch masters (other than Bosch) in exchange down the road; of using their influence to facilitate favors andthe master strokethe promise of their unshakable technology and authority to determine if the paintings are truly by Bosch and not his studio or his followers. ilsenkLed by über strategist Matthijs Ilsink (who deserves a film of his own), the team forges on. Determined to win, they ply their instruments and diplomacy like battlefield surgeons at Doctors Without Borders.

But there’s more: that subtext is a lesson in negotiation; always charming, witty and elegant, but with rapiers of finest steel wrapped in multilingual gloves. Pay attention to it! Watching them carve their way through thickets of politesse and property law is thrilling. In other words, truly the art of the deal. And all of it (almost all) caught on camera by a crew monitoring body language, expression, and gesture that portend the likely outcome of every round.

van HusteeAlthough nominally Pieter van Huystee’s debut as director, Hieronymous Bosch benefits from the portfolio (he’s produced and or written some 80 films) he brings to the table. He knows just when to disclose the mysteries and surprises, how to show the art, and how to capture the personalities of the high-strung and complicated players in the drama. He can even make their advanced technology comprehensible. He has hired outstanding cameramen and editors to shape the material, and a composer (Paul M. van Brugge) and sound designer (Mark Glynne) to match the images and dialogue. Like I said at the beginning: a gorgeous international thriller. See it on the big screen if you can.

Apollo’s Girl

February 23, 2016


apollo and lyre



In the Library…

The Festival of Films on Art will be performing its annual miracle in Montreal (March 10 -20, 2016), with dozens of films from dozens of fifa logocountries on every conceivable aspect of the arts.
Imagination is key here; you can expect the unexpected, the cutting edge, and the retrospective glories of yesteryear screening side-by-side for almost two weeks. This is FIFA’s 34th season under Director Rene Rozon’s 
skillful hands, pulling international bold-face names and discoveries out of his bountiful hat.

hepburnFIFA is also a movable feast: its best films tour the world when the festival ends. Right now, in New York at Lincoln Center’s Library for the Performing Arts, you can behold last year’s treasures, with selections from Katherine Hepburn to the design genius of the Vignellis; Bill Viola’s video art; dance with diaghilevDiaghilev; and finally Jonas Kaufman doing songs from 1930s Berlin. Best of all: the programs (mostly Tuesdays at 2:30 til March 1) kaufmanare free, in the Library’s Bruno Walter Auditorium.
Details at:

As of March 1st, go to for a complete rundown of the Mother Ship’s upcoming slate and related events in Montreal; many filmmakers will be there for discussions and Q & As, and—if you don’t know this already, make sure you make it part of your plan—there’s always the glory of Montreal’s restaurants and history. You can fly, of course (it’s only a little over an hour) or, if you like matchless scenery, take Amtrak’s Adirondack at 8:15 AM and arrive in time for dinner. Catch the Hudson River, the upstate forests, and Lake Champlain on your way north. It’s definitely a cool trip…

Cooper’s London

April 26, 2015





Backlist: Get Ready to Read!
(Part Two)

The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt
and the Golden Age of Journalism
(Doris Kearns Goodwin)

Bully PulpitThis is a five-star effort by the author of
Team of Rivals and a woman who is an outstanding historian. The background of her tale is the start of the twentieth century and she portrays with great excitement the possibilities of that era and the feeling that everything was up for grabs. She reveals the corruption of the politicians and robber barons of the late nineteenth century and how their ways needed to be addressed and challenged. As always, goodwinGoodwin writes after huge research and with great detail; and the characters are so completely and freshly embodied that they become like actual people you’ve actually met.

At the centre of the story is the decades-long friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. Between them and together these two men take on the monopolies, the power of the bosses, the clear need for the protection of labour and the need for sweeping reforms. Central to their work is muckraking journalism and its growth at the time. The true purpose and history of investigative journalism starts here! The fraudulent businessmen and senators are also all here – and you are provoked to wonder how much has changed and what needs an exposé written today. This is a brilliantlyconvincing book about the need for change and for fairness and justice, both then and now. It also makes me want to know even more about William Howard Taft, who ultimately–after his presidency– became America’s Chief Justice. As with all of Kearns’ books, a bit of mental and physical effort is required. But stick with it. It’s definitely worth the exercise!

The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt)

goldfinchI gather this book has divided the critics. I am firmly on the “pro-Tartt” side! Yes, it has flaws. Yes, it probably is about 10-15% overwritten and could do with a bit of pruning. And yet … and yet … The cumulative impact of this novel is much like that of Dickens or Dostoevsky or George Eliot. Its range of references is startling and its cultural intelligence awesome. The book is extremely well-written throughout, and in its portrayal of the State of the Nation Today it’s breathtaking in capturing every nuance from upstart and established “high society” in New York to flophouse thugs in Las Vegas; from genuine appreciation of “high art” that provokes appreciation of great painting, music, and literature, to a portrayal of “tacky” that is energetic, authentic and totally irresistible. Its range of popular culture references is delightful and huge. The people in this novel are extremely real–especially the boy Theo, around whom it centres.

Theo’s adventures clearly want us to reference Huck Finn tarttand the Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye; but the overall structure and approach is modern-day Dickensian and the plot and characters in some ways offer a mixture of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations brought into the modern world. None of this feels self-conscious. And though you could write a footnote to each page, you can also read the book as simply a rip-roaring up-to-the-minute adventure/thriller. Also, referencing books like The Great Gatsby, this novel is told in the voice of a narrator whom one comes to realize is not entirely reliable, has hidden agendas, and doesn’t always remember things as he should. It makes the ending problematic for some. Are we to believe the philosophizing is Donna Tartt’s summary of her meanings? Or, as I prefer to think, are we to be wary of Theo’s conclusions? The energy never flags; and the writing is never anything but superb. Donna Tartt catches tones of voice of a range of characters from all walks of life, describe her settings meticulously (Park Avenue, collapsed real estate developments in Las Vegas, Amsterdam) and writes a book you believe, even though it begins with a parallel world terrorist attack that never happened. Once you accept that, the rest simply makes sense and you are off skiing down the steepest fictional slopes in some time. The detail and dialogue also make me think of a latter day Henry James. Donna Tartt has put ten years into writing this novel and I think it was worth every second; she delivers one of the best reading experiences of this or any other year.

Other books to consider:

Wilkie Collins, A Life of Sensation (Andrew Lycett)

wilkie collinsThe writer of
The Moonstone, the book T. S. Eliot called the ‘greatest’ English detective novel, was a man of secrets and mysteries as weird as some of his fictional plots. This excellent biography tells you all about it. In a colourful book, Lycett gives Collins a well-deserved place alongside his friend Charles Dickens.


Johnny Cash: The Life (Robert Hilburn)

This book is rich, illuminating and utterly frank telling of the life story by a music journalist who knew Cash, and his wife June Carter well. This convinces one that Johnny Cash achieved real and, at times, profound artistry – and lived through highs and lows that verge on the mythic. Full of original research and access to materials the family had never before shown, this is a strong and compelling telling of the life story of one of the most influential musicians of popular culture, both in the worlds of Country and Western and Rock.

1913: The Year Before the Storm (Florian Illies)

With all the reminiscences and retellings of the tales of World War I, its outbreak, its aftermaths, this is an essential and fascinating reference book. 1913What happened month by month in 1913 – especially in the world of culture? Through little snippets of biography and documentary evidence, we experience the world of Picasso and Stravinsky, of Rilke and Freud and Jung, of the emerging talents of Coco Chanel and Charlie Chaplin – a world that was about to be blown away by a war that is somehow implicit and yet, one thinks, avoidable still. Poignant and laconic, this is a powerful evocation of what Hobsbawm saw as the final year of the long 19th century and the beginning of the turbulent, awkward 20th century. Put it on the shelf next to Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes.

An Officer and a Spy (Robert Harris)

an officer and a spyThe novelization of all the characters and all the convolutions that you ever wanted to know about the Dreyfus Affair in France and were too confused to figure out. At last, all is clear! If you pay attention, that is. As convincing as his books about Cicero, Harris did his research for us all. Fact and fiction are reliably integrated.


Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing
(Anya von Bremzen)

Heartbreaking, poignant, angry and comic by turns, soviet cookingthis is a memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union and then becoming a refugee or exile in America, all seen through the prism of Soviet cooking and the food that was available or unavailable to Anya and her mother in Russia. My wife, who is Polish, related to descriptions of the long queues, the rationing and the disappointments that are described and found it all personally evocative; and we both related to the warm portrayals of the people and the fearsome and sometimes funny experiences. A unique social history, this book is a reminder of the cultural, personal and nutritional contributions to our lives of good (and bad) food. It’s also a charming, heart-warming read!

Apollo’s Girl

December 10, 2014


apollo and lyre


Come to the Cabaret…

Sing for Your Supper at HENRY’s
with NYFOS After Hours

The first time I went to HENRY’s was to join friends for dinner and stay on for the evening’s celebrationSing for Your Supper (A Crystal Anniversary Cabaret). What a night it was! The show opened with (what else?) “Sing for Your Supper,” skipped to an original take on “I’m Not Getting Married Today” (by the same tenor who had been an ardent, brilliant Lenski in Juilliard’s Eugene Onegin), and included a heartbreaking “Maria” from West Side Story, from another tenor (now at the Met, but also once a cameraman for Doctor Phil). Song after song, the evening made the spirits soar. When the cheers were over, we floated home, remaining aloft for several days.

henry's exteriorHENRY’s, you see, is all about heat and light. Bright red window frames entice you across Broadway toward the glow of outside sconces beneath awnings. Crossing the street, you’ll spot branches of tiny lights on a picket fence; more clues to what lies within. When you enter, arts and crafts chandeliers diffuse warmth from 15-foot ceilings; the room is generous, with big tables close enough for buzz but far enough for conversation. A forgotten art? Not in this neighborhood—packed with locals from uptown’s university row and media worker bees. They will come to eat, drink, meet one another and, on this particular night (December 15), be very, very merry.

Why is this night different from all other nights?steve at piano
It’s the restaurant’s fifth annual
A Goyische Christmas to You, part of NYFOS After Hours, the brainchild and one offspring of a partnership between Henry Rinehart and Steve Blier. And how did that come to be?
Because, in the Upper West Side’s mantra, real estate is destiny.                            

About 15 years ago, Blier, a fabled, hyper-busy musician, writer, coach, accompanist, entrepreneur, polymath and all-around wit with no time to cook at the end of the day, was desperate for dinner. And there, across the street from his apartment, HENRY’s beckoned. Blier simply followed his nose. For
henry reinhartHENRY’s had good attitude, good food, and plenty of it. And it had Henry himself: restaurateur, actor, art connoisseur and showman. The rest is history.

HENRY’s became Blier’s de facto dining room, and Henry got a piano for Steve to play. Over time, the two cooked up a plan: a free-form cabaret series, called Sing for Your Supper, where the up-and-coming singers Steve knew could entertain after hours in a unique neighborhood boite, be embraced in a knowing group hug, and be fed well in the bargain. It was all about the atmospherebeing able to relax on the one hand, and being appreciated on the other. The crowd makes it work: there are communal tables to encourage friendly interactions 101206_Henrys_314 copythat will prosper, and fans of Blier’s many other activities, most of them closely related to NYFOS (New York Festival of Song), the umbrella organization he and Michael Barrett founded in 1988. Since then, NYFOS has grown from a modest musical trial balloon with legs into a helium-powered gondola headed right into space.

NYFOS’ agenda is as inclusive as the enthusiasts who pack its concerts in New York, Boston, Caramoor, the North Fork and a long roster of A-list venues. They relish Blier’s philosophy of everything “… from Debussy to doo-wop, lieder to latin jazz, Josquin to just-written.” The shows are unified by a theme and constructed with a dramatic arc; superb vocal artists bring the songs to vivid life, with the directors as accompanists and animated narrators. NYFOS cabaret at Henry'sBut what makes them go, in the end, is Blier’s wicked humor and encyclopedic grasp of music, his love of sharing them, and the infinity of tunes in his head and fingers. They make his special brand of magic and guarantee that no matter how much you knew about the evening’s choices when you arrive, you will know more by the time you (reluctantly) drag yourself away from the party. And you will feel like part of it from the first note to the last.

Now back to NYFOS After Hours: For those of you with 101206_Henrys_234a good calender app, it may inform you that A Goysiche Christmas to You takes place on December 15, the night before Chanukah. And why not? It is, after all, the Feast of Light, and the occasion generates a lot of it for an ecumenical bunch. You will be happy with what you see and hear. But reservations are essential!
And there more to look forward to: a season’s worth of concerts, some new NYFOS After Hours cabarets at HENRY’s, and CDs to keep you on the wavelength in the meantime.

What will you take away from the experience? Just have a look at the evening news on any channel…then go through Henry’s red door and join the group for the kind of community that most of us only dream about but can actually find inside, around the piano, watching Steve Blier after hourscast his spell. Hang out for a while after the show, talk to your fellow-celebrants and meet the artists. Then, holding tight to your metaphorical balloons, float out into the night. If you’re lucky, it will get you through the news for the rest of the week. Or maybe just give the news a rest and enjoy the memories. You can always come back for lunch, brunch, dinner and drinks at HENRY’s while you’re waiting for the next show.

Page 3: Bart Teush

November 12, 2013




How To Prepare, Drink, and Fully Appreciate
a Root Beer Float


The Root Beer Float, properly made, has not only the layers of complexity of any great culinary invention, wine or spirit, but is one of the few recipes that is more complicated in its consumption than its preparation—that is, if you want to experience the full pleasure of this masterpiece of simplicity.

root beerFirst, the root beer has to have intense flavor (Stewart’s is good). The ice cream? Only vanilla—the higher the butterfat the better. (Häagen-Dazs will do, but try for even richer and more vanilla.) However, a float will fulfill expectations with any ice cream that isn’t so beaten in with air that it immediately decomposes.This is important, because the pleasure of the float is in the pace and sequencethe eating and the drinking.

Suffice it to say, the better the ice cream vanilla_ice_cream430x300and the root beer, the more long-lasting it is—and the more fine distinctions you can enjoy, down to that final half-inch at the bottom of the glass.

But before I map the route, I have to emphasize that this is a “Float,” not a soda or a shake. The perfection of the Float depends on the developing relationships between the Root Beer, which I’ll call the Fill, and the ice cream, which I’ll call the Ice Cream.

ice cream spoonA few other ground rules: the glass should be tallish, empty mugthe spoon longish, not too big, not too small a bowl; a teaspoon, not a soupspoon.

Now, the Root Beer Float, the developing relationships, the experience:

First, The Fill.

The Ice Cream, one medium-to-small scoop of vanilla, must be anchored, in part, to the edge of the glass so it appears to float, just kissing the surface of the Fill, which should be equal to, say, one bottle of ice-cold Root Beer. This creates the first step on the ladder of pleasure for the Float Drinker: the Foam

The Foam: This is the subtle overture to the symphony to follow; it contains all of the flavors, but in their airy, evanescent incarnation (unlike other foams which are intense reductions of flavor).

Start off eating just the Foam with the spoon; here you introduce yourself to the flavor of the Fill and The Cream and begin to establish your pace and rhythm. This pace and rhythm are as important as the ingredients. You cannot pause in consuming a Root Beer Float. This does not mean shoveling it in, not at all. But it is not a stop-and-start experience. Once you start, you keep going until it’s gone. Steady on.

After a few spoonfuls of The Foam, start eating the Foam and the Ice Cream—again, in small tastes—actually the nature of the float will prohibit anything but small tastes, because you can’t go chasing the Ice Cream around the Fill. You can’t stab it or sink it or, under any circumstance, stir it; you have to keep it floating. This restraint pays off in creating The Cream (but more of that later).

So, it’s a gradual advance you make through the layers of texture and flavor. After a few spoonfuls of the Foam and the Ice Cream, start adding in the Fill; this will be your first full taste of the Root Beer. This combination of Foam, Fill, and Ice Cream will take you some distance down the glass. Good Ice Cream will stay afloat and keep its shape until you’ve consumed as much as half the glass, certainly a good third.

The magic, though, happens while you take these first careful steps. All the while youre tasting the small spoonsful of The Foam, The Fill, and the Ice Cream, there is a covert infusion of Ice Cream in the Root Beer, which creates the opportunity for sipping the supernal Cream, that Root Beer-infused ambrosia.

A few notes: Please use only a semi-wide straw straws(you can’t savor a Root Beer Float through a water main), which allows the Fill to remain cold and Root Beer-y at the end; The Cream should be exceedingly velvety and rich; and your thirst will, I promise, be quenched in your final, uninterruptedly pleasurable, uptake of The Float.

A few more notes: The Float is not to be accompanied by anything but thirst. I repeat: the pace must be steady at whatever modest speed works, but you can’t stop. And don’t be rough with the ingredients, at first or through the final sipping of the Cream. Don’t poke and push and prod the Ice Cream around and, above all, don’t—don’t ever—stir; the beauty of this drink is how it evolves without any interference other than consuming it.

If you make any mistakes, you lose distinctions—the distinctions of flavor, temperature, texture—the distinctions, which are everything.

root-beer-float-federico-arceNow you see that drinking a Root Beer float is a patient, careful process; not diamond- cutting, but definitely not just a sloppy chow down.  As in undertaking any discipline, your care, restraint, and concentration will guarantee the payoff.


Apollo’s Girl

April 1, 2013


muses-2 Delerium, Now and Then

Before taking a running jump into the mounds of film, theater, and music press kits and notes clamoring for inclusion here, there are some standouts to which attention must be paid. AfricanArt_poster

First, the now: African Art: New York and the Avant Garde (Metropolitan Museum). Never, even after years of the Met’s press previews, have I seen so many grown men and women weeping as they wielded pens, cameras and recorders while fighting for glimpses of the exhibition in Gallery 359. The tiny space is tucked into the much larger rooms of the museum’s Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas on the second floorthe Goliath to New York and the Avant Garde’s David–small, but mighty in every way. Virtually every item here is iconic: enlarged vintage photographs of the venues in which the art first went public, the art itself, and portraits of the personalities who recognized its genius when it struck New York in the early 20th century. All brilliantly designed by curator Yaëlle Biro to give you a sense of having been there then to receive the shock of the new at the very same moment you respond to it knowing what you know now. An unforgettable way to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Armory Show!brancusi head

The most powerful impact comes from seeing the actual objects in the old photographs in the gallery’s adjoining vitrines. It’s like a time trip enhanced by Brancusi’s sculpture, Picabia’s painting, Picasso’s drawingsclearly influenced by the African objects—and relics of the Harlem Renaissance on view: magazines, books, and images of the and black and white collectors whose antennae were vibrating on the eve of World War One. Why the O'Keefetears? Resonance! Because of those iconic photographs of the Armory Show (almost life-sized, greeting you as you enter the gallery); of a nude-to-the-waist Georgia O’Keefe holding an African spoon aloft; of Stieglitz’ 291 Gallery; and of a collector’s living roomall trumpeting an urgent message of discovery. The men behind the cameras included Charles Sheeler and often Stieglitz himself; unseen but ubiquitous, the ghost of Albert C. Barnes hovers over the light and shadow on display.

Despite its modest size, the show has gotten almost as much attention as the Armory Show got in 1913. Visitors are still trying to squeeze into the gallery to absorb the images, the objects, and the history. Time has only intensified their effect. Thus, the museum has had the wisdom to extend the show from its original closing date (April 14) to September 2! To say Don’t Miss It is an understatement. Just be sure you get there (the earlier the betterit does get crowded) to feel for yourself what it was like the first time around.

Then, at the Brooklyn Museum, there is Gravity and Grace: el anatsui 2Monumental Works by El Anatsui. This is not so much an exhibition as it is an explosion of Africa’s leading contemporary light. While the Museum of African Art has yet to mount its promised opening show of Anatsui’s works (now on tour), Brooklyn has, in collaboration with Jack Shaindlin (Anatsui’s New York gallery), offered its vaulted fifth-floor spaces to strew, mount, and hang the treasures in several rooms. It’s an out-of-body experience, akin to a shattering catharsis in the faith of your choice.

Anatsui’s vision has driven him to explore el anatsui 4found materials (mostly metal bottle caps, sealing strips, and cans) and to combine the historic traditions of African art and highly sophisticated modern art history with his own ideas about colonialism and collaborative work. His studio in Nigeria is filled with artisans who cut and assemble the original elements into sections, which Anatsui himself then combines as his spirit moves him; no two finished pieces are alike. And in a final embrace of collaboration he allows curators who mount his exhibitions the freedom of determining how each work will be displayed. Will it be cast on the floor? Draped on the wall? Or suspended (if there is enough space, and in Brooklyn, there is) from the ceiling?

el anatsui 3To marvel at the final choices requires being there in person, especially for the monumental pieces on view. Photographs simply cannot do justice to their scale, or to the riot of color and texture that embrace the viewer moving from gallery to gallery. An added bonus is an excellent book by Susan Vogel, El Anatsui: Work and Life, and excerpts from several videos that document the work and the workshop. Not surprisingly, the artist’s presence is as much about gravity and grace as his art, and suffused with the same spirit that permeates the Met’s New York and the Avant-Garde. Seen together the two shows are the alpha and the omega of Africa’s origins and future. You have until August 4 to give thanks where thanks are due in Brooklyn. Meantime, prepare yourself for total immersion.

Russia Rules!

Just as I was gearing up to write a heartfelt  BenArons_photo11Tgone-but-not-forgotten eulogy for Pierre, Natasha and the Great Comet of 1812 (Dave Molloy’s stupendous music theater piece that had connoisseurs storming the funky basement in which Ars Nova presented it last fall), I was thrilled to learn that the Comet was coming back! This incredible evening was a combination of acting, singing, and wholesale playing of instruments by just about everybody, with the audience crowded around pub tables (already garnished with open bottles of vodka and zakuski) as the action swirled ars nova2above and around them at heart-stopping speed. The music and the words were worthy of all the honors and reviews bestowed on the show and its cast. But what you took away from the night wasdespite its fearless combination of electro-pop score and period costumesthe greatness of Tolstoy’s story, how its power was retained with a contemporary twist, and how much the players really, really understood and loved the material. Oh—and how fresh, daring and original the entire enterprise was. As one reviewer said, “This show came out of nowhere…” Perhaps. But it was one hell of a comet, and you can be there, as of May 1, for its return!

No, Italy Rules!

Finally, one more event that inspired this post. Alas, it has receded into the past, but not from memory. And, alas, it’s not coming back: the opening of the MoMA/P.S. 1 retrospective of Pier Pasolini’s work, co-sponsored by pasolini 5Luce Cinecittà and Fondo Pier Pasolini/Cineteca di Bologna who have restored many of the films. Because so many institutions were involved, it’s hard to know who to credit for putting together this perfect storm of film, food and (dare I say it?) honest-to-God fun!

Pasolini was something of a bad boy during his prolific career (he died violently at the age of fifty-three). From Accatone (1961) to Saló or the pasolini 4120 Days of Sodom (1975), his openly homosexual lifestyle and confrontational politics created, even among the relatively easygoing Italian public, unease and often outright hostility. In his many narrative and documentary films, his auteur’s sensibility reflected the gifts of a born writer (he was a prolific poet and essayist as well), and a love of life lived to the fullest on his own terms. While all of this provided the raw material for the museum programs, its opening celebration was a fitting kickoff in the same key. How Pasolini would have loved it…

Arriving at the museum at 10am, we found tables for four set with open bottles of (excellent) Italian wine and baskets of handmade croissants and doughnuts. The croissants were all about butter (more about that later), and the doughnuts were brushed with maple syrup in honor of M. Wells dinette, whose French-Canadian chef and founder (Hugues Dufour) and his wife (Sarah Obraitis) moved into P.S. 1 last fall with their pots, pans and inspiration. While the film retrospective was scheduled to run at MoMA for three weeks as the installations and related performances were presented at P.S. 1, the dinette element guaranteed immortality beyond the closing date.

When about two hundred critics (many of them Italian) filed into the dinette for the press conference and saw what was on the tables, the temperature soared. The drama of Italian conversation was punctuated by the clink of cutlery and wine glasses while Klaus Biesenbach, P.S. 1’s steely-eyed director, and the visiting Italian dignitaries gamely moved the event forward. There was a lavish commemorative book (My Own Films) on view, filled with photos and Pasolini’s own words, pasolini 2and a guest of honor (seated at the next table), actor Ninetto Davoli, Pasolini’s long-time collaborator. Davoli looked happy and, except for his white hair, actorremarkably like the teenager who had starred in Hawks and Sparrows in 1965. With cameras humming and flashbulbs popping, excitement and the music of the language reigned supreme.

But I digress. With the full realization that the food already on the table was only a prelude soon to be augmented by more of M. Wells’ seriously divine fare, the pitch and volume of the chatter rose even higher, the clink of glass and cutlery accelerated. And out the dishes came: a Quebec version of eggs Florentine (poached egg over spinach over a crust of buttered potatoes); a mound of crème m. wellsfraiche over home-smoked salmon over home-made buttery pastry; andfinallyanother poached egg over home-made blood sausage. It could have been categorized as simple peasant food, but with the freshest ingredients and a culinary sensibility that created one master stroke after another. And, readers, if you haven’t gotten the idea yet, it was all about the butter. It was everywhere! If you really love good food, you will make the trip to P.S. 1 to enjoy its cutting-edge wares (, then repair to the dinette for a few hours to choose your own bounty from the garden of earthly delights that is M. Wells. Plan ahead, because the hours are 12 – 6, Thursday through Monday.  To find out what’s on the menu and any special events in the offing, call (718)  786-1800. Prepare to be astonished. And surrender to cholesterol, just this once. 

Cooper’s London

June 28, 2012

Stompin’ at the Savoy

During all the razzle-dazzle of the Diamond Jubilee, it seems the Queen was not the only monarch on display at the moment. Several generations of theatre royalty were on view last month at the Strand in London. I was invited by a very generous friend to pay court to them all at the Old Vic’s Annual Fund-Raising Lunch in the Savoy’s grand dining room. There was entertainment before each course that included several brilliant routines that somehow turned into the offering of prizes for which you bid and games for which you put £10 or more into an envelope.

Judi Dench did a brilliant Q and A with Celia Imrie and Peter Eyre that was the hands-down hit of the day. A celeb sat at each and every table. Ours, and the ones next door, included cast members and the director (Jamie Lloyd) from the Old Vic’s current production of The Duchess of Malfi. They were charm itself and told some lovely insider anecdotes about embarrassments behind the scenes. There were standup comics of British TV fame doing the auctions, “roasting” celebrities in the audience, and always making you feel you were part of a really good show.

We got to spend time with Eve Best–the Duchess herself-(see my post of April 23); Andrew Scott (Moriarty in the BBC Sherlock series and, I think, one of the most intensely promising actors of his generation); Tim Pigott-Smith, Mark Rylance, and Stephen Fry, among the familiar faces everywhere. Well-heeled contributors were mixing and mingling, and agents and directors were working the room with gusto. But host and Old Vic director Kevin Spacey was missing in action, filming House of Cards with David Fincher across the pond.

It was definitely the upper echelon event of the week and you literally couldn’t move an inch without seeing A-list faces from TV, film or stage. There were a few celebrated TV presenters and newsreaders in the room, and even some well-known playwrights. The entertainment was first- class, the conversation was scintillating and the food and wine were pretty terrific, too. For a few hours, it seemed almost like the real world. And by the time it was over, two hundred thousand pounds had been raised for Kevin Spacey and his theatre.

What recession??

Apollo’s Girl

June 6, 2012

Claire Tow Theater
(La Boite Sur le Toit)

In real life, architects and institutions seldom get to repair the errors of the past, or to learn from them to build anew. Except at Lincoln Center. Whatever missteps dogged the original structures, the recent makeovers (Alice Tully Hall and the plaza) and newbies (Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center) have exceeded expectations and been worth the wait. The Claire TowLCT3’s new rooftop theater (above the Vivian Beaumont) is no exception. Although almost invisible from ground level, it’s a simple glass box with a cunning program; an ingenious paradigm of less is more, and more. On a recent house tour, its virtues were everywhere apparent, created with an eye wide open to the future. Lincoln Center Theater wants to encourage upcoming artists, needs a stage suitable for mounting their work, and plans to attract the younger audiences who will find it relevant (and, at $20 a ticket, affordable). They have actually pulled it off. How? By building an intimate complex that includes a cafe/bar to continue conversations during intermissions and after hours, by having rehearsal space, offices, dressing rooms and green room right there, and by surrounding the entire enterprise with walls of glass that bring light into every corner. The effect is more than good design – it promises that great things will be taking place. And, as a finishing touch, there’s an outdoor garden and a roof deck overlooking the plaza and the surrounding cityscape, with a stereo viewer for closeups.

Architect Hugh Hardy has put the Claire Tow together with the craft of a master theater designer, whose experience goes back to working with Eero Saarinen on the construction of the Vivian Beaumont itself in the 1960s. He recounts some of the decade-long story with a dry wit. It was all about permits and permissions. “Lincoln Center is a tenant on city-owned land; the Lincoln Center Library is above (stacks of books) and the Vivian Beaumont is below. That was an architectural challenge.We needed elevators – outside the building? Through the Beaumont lobby? Where to put them without imposing on buildings and employees already in place?” But, like the seasoned negotiator he is, Hardy resolved the problems, impasse by impasse. To put it simply, no trace of them remains. Only the new house with its 112 new seats, waiting for the season to begin.

Paige Evans is LCT3’s Director. She creates and oversees a calender crammed with the playwrights, directors and casts of tomorrow, beginning with Slowgirl, by Greg Pierce, directed by Anne Kauffman (June 4 through July 15); a special event: We’re Gonna Die, written and performed by Young Jean Lee, with music by Future Wife (September 13 through September 15); and Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar, directed by Kimberly Senior (October 8 through November 18).   And, while you’re waiting, stop by to see 4000 Miles—a real gem of a play developed by LCT3 last season, now transferred to the Mitzi Newhouse Theater. It’s won an Obie (Best New American Play) for writer Amy Herzog, and for Performance (actors Gabriel Ebert and Mary Louise Wilson). Part of LCT3’s past and present, it will show you what you can hope to see in LCT3’s future. To find out what’s coming down the road: web site

Cooper’s London

June 11, 2010




Cutting Edges Coming Up

There are two slightly Off-West End plays that I want to bring to your attention if you’re going to be in London during June. The first is Joe Turner’s Come and Gone which opened at the Young Vic on 27 May and runs until July 3 at the moment, though I hear there may be an extension. It’s one of the great August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle plays and is directed by David Lan, artistic director of the Young Vic. Lan is one of the most truly sensitive and imaginative directors working today, and word is that he’s done it again with a riveting and brilliantly moving production. I hope to confirm the buzz myself very soon.


Opening at the same time is Dream of the Dog, a highly-acclaimed South African play by Craig Higginson. This will be at Trafalgar Studios 2 until mid-June and is a transfer from the Finborough Theatre Pub in London. It stars Janet Suzman, too-rarely seen in London in theatre these days, and is one of her projects. It’s about reconciliation and forgiveness – and whether the pressure of the past can ever really be relieved and peace found.

Finally, a good bet seems to me to be La Bete, which won an Olivier when it was first performed in London in 1991. It runs at the Comedy Theatre from 26 June to 4 September. This time, the two opposed male characters are played by Mark Rylance, recently so marvellous in Jerusalem, and the delightful David Hyde Pierce, who not only starred as Niles in Frasier, but led the original Broadway cast so brilliantly in Spamalot. Add to this the enchanting Joanna Lumley and director Matthew Warchus, who recently did such a good job on God of Carnage on Broadway, and I think you should get your tickets now before the critics sell the show out.

 And if you fancy a little nostalgia with your cutting- edge experiences, you can always try a new production of The Fantasticks at the Duchess Theatre. Do I really need to tell you about it? Try to remember! …



Resurrecting Pearls

Hilary Spurling has done us all two favors in writing her biography of Pearl S. Buck. The most obvious one is the book’s cogent and stimulating argument for reviving a reputation that, for far too long, has been at the mercy of academic fundamentalists.Instead of damning Buck because, in an age of modernism, she did not fit in with the now-accepted literary approaches of a Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, Spurling eschews contemporary critical dismissal of the author, and actually examines her real aims in writing those books, fiction and non-fiction. Spurling vividly and thoughtfully recreates for us the context and experiences that inform these amazing books and convincingly shows their power and importance.

In telling Bucks’ fascinating life story (with an emphasis on her Chinese upbringing and her married years in China up to about the age of 35), Spurling immerses us in both the background of the tales that Buck told, and also in the missionary mind-sets and imperialistic snobbery towards the Chinese that the books so valiantly set out to counteract. With an abundance of quotations from Buck herself, which constantly demonstrate the compelling and almost, at times, Biblical intensity of Buck’s very personal prose style, Spurling’s book again and again makes you realize just why Buck was the first American woman to win a Nobel prize for literature, and also why you should read her work today.

Because China is so important a global presence today, it gives us a new and richer context within which to reconsider the background of the super-power. Spurling clearly shows that Buck’s style owes a lot to her Chinese upbringing: Her books were deliberately written as if translated from the Chinese; they set out to echo the most popular styles of Chinese fiction itself. Buck’s writings are (justly) still attacked by critics for their melodrama, but Spurling convincingly explains why Buck consciously chose her populist aesthetic. 

Even those who praise this biography still undervalue Buck’s work. It’s universally accepted that Buck was historically important, perhaps, but a lousy writer. This is based on several specious arguments, one of which is simply the sheer volume of the sales she achieved with books like The Good Earth, Pavilion of Women, Dragon Seed, The Patriot, or Imperial Woman, to name but a few.

Yes, she churned them out – but so did Dickens. Yes, she was didactic to a rather uncomfortable degree at times, but so were most of the Victorians we admire today. And as Spurling demonstrates, many of the most preposterous and melodramatic events in the novels are there simply because they actually happened. Buck heard about them from her nanny, or her contemporary Chinese friends, or she witnessed them herself. In an age when “literature” and popular writing were splitting apart, Buck resolutely and very successfully chose to be a populist in the realist tradition.  

Flawed or not, Spurling shows the books to be consistently informed by passion and anger, by clarity of vision, and by Buck’s fundamental purpose: to communicate the realities of China as it was, to readers whose idea of the Chinese was Charlie Chan and Chu-Chin-Chow at best, and opium-addicted warlords at worst. Spurling puts the books so firmly in their historic context that her biography also becomes a cogent history lesson. But ultimately, as Spurling points out, the novels and writings of Pearl Buck work because they create a believable world which draws you in so that you become part of it. 

Spurling has herself written a compelling story of great interest, and has written it brilliantly. Hers is, for me, a model biography. It’s selective and suggestive in the same way that Lytton Strachey could be. It’s written in a style that is simultaneously muscular and self-effacing, making it a terrifically enjoyable read. And it weaves together seamlessly Buck’s story, the reconsideration of a literary legacy and its impact, the resurrection of a reputation, and the historical context in which the Buck’s life and work occurred. And, as important, it shows the impact of her Chinese years on her later life in America, where she was so energetically outspoken against bigotry in all its forms. 

In the end, I can praise this book in many ways and summon many arguments for why you should read it, why you simply shouldn’t miss this one. But ultimately the strongest is that there was not a page or a sentence that I did not find completely engrossing and utterly enjoyable. And it certainly makes me want to get my hands on the rest of Buck’s works to read, or re-read.

Burying the Bones, Pearl Buck in China was published a couple of months ago in the UK by Profile Books (£15.00), and on 1 June 2010 in the USA as Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth ($27.00), by Simon and Schuster). You can read it either way.

Joseph Walsh Rocks in County Cork

On my last trip to Ireland, I stumbled upon some of the most fascinating, unusual and truly exciting furniture I’ve ever seen. So, if you want an unexpected artistic frisson; and if you’re in the kind of income bracket where you can afford bespoke pieces that work in a practical sense (while they also happen to be works of art), check out the designs of artist-entrepreneur Joseph Walsh.

There’s something about the textures and shapes that Walsh creates out of wood and other materials that is simply magical. Every piece seems significant, yet like something slightly not-of- this world; his work always takes you by surprise. When a friend first showed me the finished products in photographs, I was mesmerized. And when I visited his workshops and saw – in the flesh – both the furniture for now, and the experimental shapes and designs he’s working on for the future, I felt I’d been granted special privileges. It’s like coming upon Picasso or Matisse for the first time and having that amazing experience of both surprise and recognition — of absolute “rightness.”

Joseph Walsh began making furniture when he was six – and became a master joiner and carpenter, entirely self-taught, before he was out of his teens; a kind of Mozart of furniture design and construction. Even as an adolescent, his more “ordinary” creations had a charm and individuality that attracted clients – and proved he already excelled at conception and technique. But since then, he has evolved into pure artistry.  

Walsh has converted the barns on his father’s farm (that he first worked in as a child) into workshops, and has built a stunning office that I personally wouldn’t mind having as a house! Like all artists, he’s obsessive about his work. He can seem quite shy in person, and has little to say; but if you ask him about the table (inspired by a naval theme) with no legs, suspended by cables from the ceiling while in use (for SOFA, Chicago, in 2007), or his amazing rocking chairs, that look stable, but are meant to move, he becomes enthusiastic, lyrical and unstoppably articulate. He will tell you everything you ever needed to know about shaping wood, creating new forms, and choosing the exact type of materials that you need to fulfill a vision. 

“How do I see my work?” he responds when I ask him. “As transcending design and art, guided only by these three things: the sensitive use of materials, excellence in the physical making of every piece, and purity in structure and form.” He experiments constantly with types of wood, shapes, and the engineering of unbelievably fluid pieces. It’s hard to believe some of the ideas he’s managed to turn into reality, even when you see them, and I dream of giving a dinner party at one of his long tables -– especially the one that hangs from the ceiling. Think of the conversation it will inspire as it gently while you eat.

Walsh founded his own studios in 1999, and ten years on has begun training the next generation of furniture artists. His main workshop barn is full of “apprentices” from all over the world who are clearly devoted not only to the work and the learning, but to him personally. You can find his studios in Fartha, Riverstick, Co. Cork, Ireland. To arrange a visit contact: Frances McDonald, Studio Manager, Joseph Walsh Studio, at Tel: +353 21 4771759,  Mobile/Cell: +353 87 2420136, or by email: They are friendly, welcoming and very hospitable! Because Walsh is now being exhibited all over the world – Chicago, New York, Paris, the Far East – you can also Google him to see when he’s coming to a venue near you.

Something Fishy Fishy 

If you do visit Walsh, in County Cork, then be sure also to drive to Kinsale, a gem of a fishing town that seems like the prototype of every New England fishing village you’ve ever fantasized. The trip through the greenest of countryside will also remind you why they call this the Emerald Isle.  The mediaeval town, with Norman as well as Spanish and English influences, is beautifully situated; it’s picture perfect, and you’ll come across what I deem to be one of the best fish restaurants in the world: Fishy Fishy 

Fishy Fishy is run by the husband-and-wife team, Martin and Marie Shanahan. The couple began with a small fish shop-deli that still exists, which made them locally famous. From a business for supplying the best catch to the locals and restaurants of Kinsale, they developed their deli into a restaurant that they’ve moved to Kinsale’s seafront. The fish they cook is brought to their doorstep straight from the boats. It could not be fresher – or better prepared.  

If you’re in County Cork, don’t miss the furniture or the fish. Or, if you’re anywhere in Ireland, make a special trip. It’s worth the effort, they’re taste-changing in every way.

Size Matters

December 22, 2009

Big Ideas, Big Treasures

The opening number of Ragtime (now in a stunning revival at the Neil Simon Theater) is a paradigm for the power of musical theater at its best—with ranks of the three groups whose stories intersect: the white upper-middle-class of Westchester, the African-Americans of Harlem, and the waves of immigrants (most from eastern Europe, Italy, or Ireland) who will make their mark on the country in the early 20th century.

On three levels of a minimal set, they claim their territory, express their attitudes and set up the conflicts that mirror America’s great leap forward, using music and movement to create the essence of complex history—even more effective as metaphor. The scene revived memories of the best moment of Fiddler on the Roof  (the brainchild of Jerome Robbins, the master of metaphor), when the Jews decide to flee their villages forever:  As music plays, the ragged band steps into light, on to a large turntable that begins to revolve; then, one by one or in small family groups, leave it…flung off into the darkness of an uncertain future. But they will travel in hope to other countries and cultures, free of the rigid laws and pogroms that have made their lives beyond the Pale unbearable.

Ragtime succeeds because of its economy and innate strength. The score sounds fresh, and the new lean production (using pipes to construct a car, a piano, or having a wheeled stairway stand in for a movie set), carries all the potency of suggestion, in place of literal representation. It’s the perfect aesthetic for director Marcia Milgrom Dodge, who was chosen for this Broadway revival after thirty years in regional theater; she’s charged it with life from the opening number to the last note.  Her large cast sizzles, especially Christiane Noll, Robert Petkoff, Quentin Earl Darrington, Stephanie Umoh, and the tiny Savannah Wise, as the ill-fated Evelyn Nesbit.

Some of the heat that Ragtime emits comes from its successful translation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel (with similar construction and, in 1975, a very innovative mixture of fact and fiction). What was innovative then, is immediately recognizable now, and no less a strong skeleton to flesh out with song and dialogue. Its mixture of fictional and real characters works brilliantly. And its emotional punch leaves you laughing and crying, often at the same time.

This is enhanced by its subtext– the time of its conception– (just after the Vietnam War had ended, the Civil Rights movement had set in motion many ideas we take for granted today, and we were beginning to move on from the assassinations that had rocked the country). Ragtime ends just before the beginning of World War One and its forever changes. But it is reminiscent of a time of hope before those changes and, for a few hours in the theater, reminds us of what was possible when the country had less than half its current population, people still actually talked to one another, rather than to electronic devices, and urban surroundings were on a human scale. (Italics mine.) Knowing, in 2009, that that hope has proven largely unfounded, makes it only more appealing.

Big Ideas, Small Cast
(Brief Encounter)

I know everyone’s been raving about this show (Mel Cooper reported on the Knee High Theater earlier in Cooper’s London), and I can only add the most important information: its current Brooklyn run at St. Anne’s Warehouse has been extended to January 17. This amazingly inventive take on an old film, given new (and absolutely unique) life by director/adapter Emma Rice, boasts a small cast (of nine) that just never quits. They play multiple roles and instruments, and surround you with love and surprises from the moment you enter the lobby; dressed as ushers in a suburban movie theater in the 1940s, they perform songs by Noel Coward, so you believe – really believe – before you even take your seat.

The production itself uses film, video, live action, lighting, props, and body language to create a heightened reality. You’ve seen the elements before. But it’s the totally unique ways in which the actors, music, lights, and movement fuse that keep it irresistible all the way through. The references to the movie are always there.  And the bodies in constant (and often slapstick) motion create an alternative world that oddly enhances your connection to the characters. It’s darker than the movie, and full of emotion, rather than sentiment. It’s a lot to pull off, and Knee High does it with a combination of imaginative improvisation, split-second timing, and brilliant direction by Emma Rice. Look for more on Knee High this spring in these pages.

 Big Ideas, Small Treasures

What’s the opposite of blockbuster? Some of New York’s recent openings. Think compact quarters, spacious ideas. For instance: The Metropolitan Museum is showing (until February) what it calls  “A Recently Rediscovered Velázquez Painting”—Portrait of a Man—that has emerged from centuries of mis-cleaning, mis-repainting, just plain grime, and that old devil varnish to shine anew.

It’s displayed in a modest gallery, along with a few other Velázquez portraits. What’s really fascinating, though, is the museum’s account of the painting’s history and reclamation on view in labels, and via headphones and podcast as well. ( Don’t miss this rare peek behind the curtlain. (Or the painting itself, which is luminous in its new incarnation!)

 Lost and Found

Inside the elegant quarters of NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (15 East 84 Street), you can find two rooms filled with very small, very old objects, and a burning mystery: what happened to the early Europeans who made them between 5000-3500 BC? 

In modern-day Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, these southeastern people left behind sophisticated pottery, figurines, and gold and copper objects; the remnants of their long-abandoned settlements in the Danube Valley are badly charred. Who set the fires? You can ponder the mystery while you ponder the objects, until April, and admission is free.

Small Plates, Big Prices

The Guggenheim Museum has had a culinary/design makeover of its restaurant, and will be serving food by Executive Chef Rodolfo Contreras, with an accent on fresh ingredients from local area farmers and markets, cunningly presented as jewels for the palate: Sea Urchin Sauce, slow-roasted suckling pig, Quince, Violet Mustard and Apple Bacon jus, to name a few.

An alumnus of Bouley International, Contreras will preside over a destination eatery with only 58 seats, a communal table, and a European-style bar with small plates. Open from 11:30am to 11:00pm, The Wright sends more than one message: you will be well-taken-care-of, well-fed, and well-watered in its cozy, minimalist precincts, surrounded by a site-specific sculpture (“The horizon produced by a factory once it had stopped producing views”). But you will be paying market prices, too.

The designer food, sampled at a packed opening, hit its mark, and the wine was at the level of the food. But, at the risk of seeming ungrateful, could the Guggenheim consider an alternative space for hungry travelers who need to fill up before navigating the ramp, who may not have resources essential to a place at The Wright’s table? It’s worth thinking about…..maybe a daily soup, sandwich, and salad stand in another location?

Big Ideas, Big Talent

Before you get caught up in the holidays, be sure to schedule a trip to MoMA sometime between January 7 – 13, to see Caroline Link’s new film, Sometime in Winter. If I had to name one woman director as the best working today, Link would get my vote. Her adaptation of Nowhere in Africa won a (well-deserved) 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and was preceded by a portfolio of top-of-the-line works (The Rest is Silence; Pünktchen und Anton), displaying the technical mastery and perfect pitch for human dilemmas that distinguish all her films. Don’t miss it, and consider asking MoMA for a retrospective. It’s high time!

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