The Nutcracker, The Trocks, Chocolate Room and Buvette

In Alexei Ratmansky’s interpretation of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker™ rather than starting in the parlor, the curtain rises on a scene in the kitchen where mice are scattered about. Justin Souriau-Levine as the small, mischievous mouse who hides in the soup pot is superb.

The story unfolds to a more traditional telling, but American Ballet Theatre’s mixes fantasy and reality. There has been some criticism of the male bees pollinating the dancing flowers. It’s fun and unexpected. Richard Hudson designed both the gorgeous costumes and set, with Clara’s sky-high bed and the dramatic lopsided house we see at the beginning and the end. Ratmansky’s production moves permanently to the West Coast for the holidays of 2015.

We left humming Tchaikovsky. "Did it entirely hold your attention?" I asked 9-year-old Arden. “It would probably be better for ages 10 and up,” she said.

After the Nutcracker, we went to the Chocolate Room for a post-show treat. Close to BAM, it is open late (11pm). The dense three-layer chocolate cake that Oprah raved about is simple and not too sweet. My daughter’s favorite was the black bottom butterscotch custard with a strata of bittersweet chocolate and whipped coconut cream. The friendly staff offers chocolate samples while you wait.

Arden thought that Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo could be funnier. Of course, she’s grown up seeing men in drag on the stage, and The Trocks could not sustain the gag for her. With only a limited exposure to Russian literature, she’s forgiven for missing the humor in the troupe’s stage names, like Natalia Notgudinov and Ida Nevasayneva. (All the dancers have Russian bios in the Playbill.)

Seeing men en pointe was a sensation when the company started forty years ago. Robert Carter, who dances the lead swan, has been with the Trocks for twenty years—long career for a ballet dancer, and he’s still got it. Go For Barocco with music by Bach opened the second act and is a strong piece more focused on the dancing and less on being funny. Laszlo Major who plays a very male male in Le Corsaire Pas de Deux is stunning  and can turn like a dream. The Trocks have a loyal fan base and are sure to continue for many years to come. 

While most NYC restaurants are staffed by actors, Buvette, not far from the Joyce Theatre, has a wait staff full of writers. The first to get a book contract moved on. Waverly is in the midst of writing her novel, and Beck behind the bar is starting his.

What is it about Buvette? The tiny bistro is constantly packed, serving small plates off a petite menu. Cassoulet ($16) is colorful and warming, served in a round deep bowl. Salad beets were condensed in flavor and well seasoned. Brandade de Morue is served in a glass container with the toast standing up in it. About the only choice for a child was the Croque Monsieur ($12). Buvette's waiters did seem especially articulate when, instead of asking, “Are you still working on that?” they say, “Are you still enjoying that?”

The Dog in the Night-Time and the Osteria al Doge

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In the Night-Time begins when a neighborhood dog is killed and an autistic, 15-year-old boy tries to find out who is responsible for the crime. Christopher is highly intelligent and passionate, but ill equipped for such a task. As a savant, his awareness of numbers and facts is heightened, and he can't stand to be touched. We empathize immediately with his struggle with everyday interactions.

The story is told through narration and the ingenious set. Walls and floors are a grid pattern and become alive with secret compartments, train platforms, glowing boxes and a tube map as Jonathan’s search leads him to London. The dramatic scene in the station where he’s misplaced his pet rat is the sort of terror most of us hope never to witness in real life. Jonathan recites prime numbers to calm down and continues his search. At one point numbers take over the set as they take over his mind.

The actors are really good and Alex Sharp as Christopher is superb. We root for our hero in his honorable struggle for the truth, and we are anxious that he makes it back home. Based on the incredible book by Mark Haddon, which was popular with teens and adults alike, the unlikely but successful staging by the National Theatre of London received seven Olivier Awards including Best Play and is still running on the West End.

Venetian restaurant Osteria al Doge (translation: unassuming restaurant favored by the bigshot) is smack in the heart of the theatre district and dramatic whatever the time of day. Like a lot of great restaurants, the Doge has recently added a weekend brunch—Sunday brunch is after all when most New Yorkers like to go out to eat. Most of the time, the Doge is abuzz with happy theatergoers, like before Wednesday’s matinee.

Sit at a table in the romantic wraparound mezzanine and you get a sweet view of the hanging Latin candelabrum and the entire room. Seafood, meat and risottos are good value here, gorgeously presented, in big portions. Salads are heaping and colorful, and pastas deliver, such as the tender, ribbon-thin pappardelle made in-house. Individual pizza that overlaps the plate had a doughier crust than usual (note: next time ask for it extra-thin and burnt around the edges). To finish, espresso with a selection of gelato and biscotti. 

A Delicate Balance and Frankie and Johnnie's

John Lithgow and Glenn Close in A Delicate Balance
Agnes and Tobias’s luxurious house (scenic design by Santo Loquasto) has alcoholic sister Claire living upstairs. But never mind, a martini “dividend” is always on offer, even in the morning, from a well-stocked liquor caddy next to the black marble fireplace.

John Lithgow plays Tobias with restraint and muffled charm. He is nicer than he should be, and he can’t help it, as when sister-in-law Claire requests a drink. His best friend and the irritating wife, Harry and Edna (Bob Balaban and Clare Higgins) turn up and ask to stay over, because of an unexplained “terror” back home, and Tobias can't say no nor do anything to set a departure date. Lithgow is lovable in the part of unconditional friend, and he's the best at striking a delicate balance.

Glenn Close’s Agnes is admirable rather than lovable. Others have played Agnes as passive-aggressive. This Agnes stands by her man, even though she expects more of him. Close is unexpectedly just a little bit boring. Perhaps it is not Glenn, but the part of Agnes. You want her to let it rip, but she never gets the chance. (See Glenn Close fully expressed in the 1991 opera film "Meeting Venus," by Istvan Szabo.)

Martha Plimpton is daughter Julia, who arrives home after her fourth marriage has collapsed and expects more sympathy than she gets. We’ve loved Plimpton in films and on television, but on stage she is truly amazing. Her angry Julia provides catharsis in a play reined in by politeness, and she also grounds the play.

As to Lindsay Duncan as Claire, she makes a beautiful entrance, drunk and contrite. Thereafter, the audience liked everything she did. Even her “Are we having our dividend?” and “By golly, that’s a good martini,” got belly laughs.  The only thing that dates Edward Albee, perhaps, is his tolerance for drinkers. 

Albee lives in a loft in Tribeca and continues to refine his plays, as he did a couple of seasons back adding a cell phone to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee has certainly earned his dividend. Pam MacKinnon directed both.

Across the street from the Golden sits a small chophouse, Frankie and Johnnie's, that has been booked every night of the week since the 1920s when it was a speakeasy. One of the oldest restaurants in town, it is full of nooks and crannies, including an intimate upstairs bar papered with photos of celebrities who have dined there, including Thelma Ritter. Nothing has ever changed. You enter a snug time capsule.

The menu lists clams casino, lamb with mint jelly, creamed spinach, big portions, and huge grilled steaks. Your waiter wields a rubirosa pepper mill. "Would you like your steak medium rare?" he suggests. And who would not? The $47 sirloin had a delectable thick charred crust. Caesar salad was old-fashioned, eggy and salty with anchovies, and there was a generous bread basket. With potatoes made eight different ways, the French fries were chewy and just outstanding. In all but price, F&J's compares to the dreamy era of "Mad Men." 

It is bustling and full of good cheer that dates back a long, long time to before you were born. Say hi to waitress Roxy for us. During Prohibition, one gained access with the password "Frankie?" and the person on the other side of the door responded, "Johnnie." 

Brasserie Magritte and St. Therese: The Show

Brasserie Magritte is a loving homage to nearly everyone's favorite artist. The ceiling is a bright mural of clouds. There is a chandelier of floating bowler hats. Art on the walls includes work by a contemporary Belgian photographer that restages the paintings of René Magritte (1898-1967). Every detail is so charming, including the optical illusion placemats.

Chef Shohn Donaghy and the staff are from Belgium. Sausages are made on the premises. Mussels are steeped in a beer butter sauce and come with a cone of twice-fried crispy frittes, served with garlic mayonnaise as well as catsup. Belgian beef stew and rabbit and duck are in beer reductions. Brasserie Magritte regularly holds a mysterious 14 Strangers Dinner in its back room, with fourteen diners who have never met and an array of their classic Belgian dishes. (Our names are on the waiting list!) Background music is a carefully curated selection of mostly jazz and Edith Piaf. A massive chalkboard lists the Belgian beer served, each is served in its own exquisite stemmed glass. Significantly, Heineken cannot be ordered there. "There are just too many other great Belgian beers," said the manager.

      A short walk from the Upper East Side Brasserie Magritte brought us to Our Lady of Good Counsel Roman Catholic church. No, not to pray, but to attend a traveling show based on the short but influential life of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897). St. Thérèse was born into an aristocratic family. Although she died at the age of twenty-four she left behind an influential autobiography and is known as the saint that writers evoke to cure writer's block. In sleepy St. Patrick's Cathedral, her small altar near the apse is a hive of activity with blocked writers of all faiths making offerings and kneeling to light a votive candle. 

St. Thérèse is evoked by opponents of the death penalty for her radical belief that a person may do something bad, but it doesn't mean he's a bad person. She found evidence to prove that there is some good in everybody. Michel Pascal, a remarkable singer, offers a chance to touch her brown robe and to view up close a reliquary of Thérèse’s hair. He takes you behind the closed doors of her Carmelite convent and makes you feel "closer to her than you have ever felt before."

Indian Ink and Fig & Olive

In Sir Tom Stoppard’s 1995 Indian Ink, based on a radio play, Flora Crewe, a young British poet, diagnosed with a fatal illness (something to do with her lungs) decides to spend the last few months of her life in India writing poetry and letters to her younger sister Eleanor. The play transports us to a fictitious town, Jummapur, where Flora has her pick of men to distract her and she chooses an artist like herself. He is one of many; Men were not really important to Flora,” says her sister played by Tony winner Rosemary Harris. “If they had been, they would have been fewer. She used them like batteries. When things went flat, she’d put in a new one...”.

The play jumps back and forth between India 1930 and England 1980. Flora in India and her sister Eleanor fifty years later in England recanting Flora’s story to a young writer and the son of the painter who did Flora’s portrait. Stoppard questions what to do with time and the choices people make. Rosemary Harris and Romola Garai (Flora) are delightful and the two Das men (Firdous Bamji, father, and Bhavesh Patel, son) romantic and captivating. As always with Stoppard, the dialogue is thrilling.

The set is bathed in soft blue light and lulling instrumentals. Indian Ink has few patches of rough water. Mostly the waves are gentle and rhythmic. Elegantly directed by Carey Perloff. The Roundabout follows this up with Stoppard’s 1982 smash hit, The Real Thing.

Gazpacho Andalucia
Zucchini Carpaccio
Off Fifth Avenue on 52nd St. is one of three Fig & Olive restaurants in the city (another on the Upper East Side and one in the Meatpacking District). Chef Pascal Lorange's menu emphasizes fish (including octapus served a couple of ways and whole branzino) and different olive oils, often listed. On the drinks menu is an heirloom tomato Bloody Mary. Anything you order will be better than you've had anywhere else. The mushroom pasta, Penne Funghi Tartufo, was the most mushroom pasta ever: garlicky, flecked with herbs and Parmesan flakes, topped with grilled shrimp. (Maybe it's the very specific olive oil that made it taste so good?)

Gazpacho Andalucia was the best gazpacho. Zucchini carpaccio may be the only zucchini carpaccio you've ever tasted, but it's the best (zucchini, lemon, pine nuts, Parmesan and Picholine olive oil). The $28 three-course prix fixe allows you to savor all of the above. The noise level is low and the soft jazz in the background is soothing. Every thing is just right, including that slippery descriptor, atmosphere. Even the flatware and stemware are nice to the touch.

The Maids and Triomphe

Screen icons Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert
Australia's Sydney Theatre Company The Maids by Jean Genet, brought to New York by Lincoln Center, begins with the maids Claire and Solange dressing up in their employer’s gowns and perfume and dancing to Nico's I'll Be Your Mirror. It’s a dreamy start to the 90-minute avant-garde classic played without intermission that continues to build all the way through.

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert are, unimaginably, the maid sisters. Tall Elizabeth Debicki is the self-dramatizing mistress, who one moment promises her servants, “Some day I’ll leave everything to you,” and in the next moment forgets their names, based on a true story.

The younger of the sisters, Claire, is the magic Cate Blanchett, a lioness. She bellows, frolics, and then curls into an exhausted fetal state. She isn't capable of defending herself, much less committing murder. It comes as no surprise that the naughtiest of the two sisters, Solange, is Isabelle Huppert, whose mischief is well-known from French cinema. Onstage her energy is unstoppable, and she is both coltish and graceful. Many have commented on her strongly French-accented English. We understood her and found her delivery haunting.

When the mistress is home, Blanchett and Huppert are such great actresses that they are convincingly servile and in awe of her. For her part, Australian newcomer Debicki holds court with aplomb. Much has been made of this production using a younger rather than older mistress. To us, the three seemed relatively the same age, which gave the old play (1947) a new twist.

When the mistress arrives, we see the video monitor as she gets into the elevator and the maids scramble to clear up the mess. The constant video projection was distracting, though sometimes used comically – we can watch as, in the kitchen, poison is mixed into the mistress’s tea. Glass walls surround the lavish bedroom and a long rack of countless gowns, color coordinated, and bowls of cut flowers create a bubble of excess – a suffocating world. It was unnecessary, because we felt trapped already. These women are captivating all on their own.  

 Florian Wehrli in his rooftop garden
Swiss star chef Florian Wehrli's good reputation precedes him. On the top of his restaurant in the Iroquois Hotel, he has a massive organic garden that grows red peppers, yellow tomatoes, potatoes, flowers, over thirty herbs. It's like the Garden of Eden, with the Chrysler building in the background.  "Taste this." He broke off a leaf. "It's stevia, a hundred times sweeter than sugar. I'm trying to figure out how to use it in a dish."

At Triomphe, the intimate restaurant downstairs, he serves food that is known for perfectionist beauty. His food is beautiful without seeming fussy or over-handled. If there's another quality besides taste that we could pin to Florian's edge it is crispness. Scallops in a crisp almond crust. Beef Wellington in a crunchy en croûte of bread instead of the traditional pastry. The gazpacho had crispness in micro minced peppers (grown on the roof) and the crunch of dried onion pieces. Crème brûlée, with perfect burnt shell, comes in "three mysterious flavors." The maître d' checks in to see if you guessed before he'll tell you what they are. Ours were bay leaf, raspberry, and toasted coconut, and we were only able to guess one. But when he told us, the other flavors rang out.

The well-written menu at noontime offers four prix fixes, including the Bounty lunch of three exquisite courses of vegetables, and "4 Courses on 44" (the restaurant is on 44nd St.) for, you guessed it, $44. Most popular is Tribute to Provence, at $25, with one main course, either shrimp niçoise full of lacy cress or grilled steak with white corn summer salsa, served with the perfect glass of wine.

Striped Sea Bass on Squid Ink Pasta
with Roasted Tomatoes
Triomphe regularly publishes a hardcover with photos of each of the dishes served that season. "About forty copies are printed," said the chef. "It's nice to remember what we did." Check them out in the Iroquois lobby library. Triomphe serves a pretty breakfast too and will soon offer a late-night menu.

50 Shades! The Musical and Turkish Cuisine

"Sure, I'll sign your contract, Mr. Grey."
50 Shades! The Musical Parody at the Elektra Theater is hilarious – and kind of X-rated. At the bar during intermission, a woman said she wondered whether the actors would actually get naked in the second half.

At one point, a cast member wags his finger at the men in the audience (there are a few), and tells them not to criticize their wives and girlfriends for reading books like Fifty Shades – as if the millions of female readers needed permission. The premise is a book club choosing to read Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, confident of its worth because the writer is English.

Amber Petty is innocent Anastasia Steele, working in a hardware store. She has an unforced singing style and a brilliance that transcends the material – the material being the tortuous bestseller. 50 Shades! The Musical is way better than the novel.

Journalists are not allowed to publish a picture of the incredible actor who plays the male lead, so as not to spoil the surprise when he struts out on stage. Christian Trevelyan Grey, the intimidating billionaire who introduces Anastasia to his wicked ways, is played by Jack Boice, comic genius. His uninhibited dance steps and crystal clear tenor voice held the audience in the palm of his hand. He’s so good you want to slap him.

Dinner in the garden at Turkish Cuisine
After 50 Shades we wanted to spice things up and walked around the corner from the Elektra to Ninth Avenue. Turkish Cuisine more than satisfied our craving for assertive flavors with an appetizer of spicy hummus and grilled pita, followed by chopped Shephard salad, grilled salmon, and the grilled combo that is one of the best deals in town.
The meze looked fantastic. Platters were generous, everything fresh and healthy. We should have ordered something with eggplant. In the pretty back garden, a neighbor cat climbed over the wall, sauntered through the tables, then hopped back up the wall to leave. Strings of lights swayed in the breeze and with the full moon above it felt like an outdoor café on the Bosphorus.

Caffè Taci Opera Nights at Papillon Restaurant

Just listen to their aria, and you will feel euphoria.
It's irresistible to stop in at Leopoldo Mucci's Caffè Taci late Saturday night in Papillon restaurant, in its Belle Époque upstairs rooms. Puccini traded places with Bizet when Taci moved from Greenwich Village to this midtown French restaurant just one night a week. Gone is the menu with Don Giovanni Lasagna and Figaro Fusilli. How can we not miss that? But there are beautiful frittes and an appetizing menu heavy on grilled sea food, with many appetizers, seasonal side dishes, and trippy desserts. 

You dine on white linen and a waiter brings around a giant basket of fresh rolls. People dress up to come here, just like at the Met Opera. There's an excellent grilled hamburger, for those who can't afford the Grand Tier or Dress Circle at the Met. All of the seats at Caffè Taci cost the same. There's no cover charge you're asked to spend a mere minimum of $35 and to tip the performers. 

The singers are why you are there, expertly performing arias each has perfected. Then duets and a brilliant competitive rendition of O sole mio, and perhaps a group singalong to La Vie en Rose. It couldn't be more thrilling. Pianist Iya Fedotova begins the night at 8:30, with Midnight in Moscow, and in this opera overture, the occasional Broadway show tune sneaks in. The first singer takes the stage at 9, and the party continues until past 1 a.m. Sometimes internationally famous cast members from operas arrive late, once they've finished a performance at the Met or City Opera.

It would be great if, as in the past, Taci had its own restaurant and performed opera nightly, instead of using Papillon just on Saturdays. The opera loving crowd in New York would support it. We wish for better lighting on the small stage, so we could see the person behind the supernatural voice. (Leopoldo claims they "like the dark.") While Iya Fedotova is thanked, and can never be thanked enough for the magic she creates, the singers are rarely introduced. Taci could take better care of its artists. When an emerging opera star does something powerful and amazing, you want to know her name and to follow her career. A simple program would provide a diva with something to autograph.

In the photo: Robert Garner, Charles Coleman, Tiffany Abban, Joseph LaSalle, Noelle Barbera, StacyLyn Bennett, Jennifer Gliere, and José Heredia. And in this clip, Robert Garner and Brad Cresswell nail Bizet's Toreador.

Donald Does Dusty and Frankie’s

Theatre Row rarely advertises one-of performances, but we’re making an exception to let you know in advance about Donald Does Dusty, to be performed July 11 at Dixon Place at ten p.m.

Created and performed by Diane Torr, well known for her impersonations of men, in Donald Does Dusty she pays homage to her brother Donald Torr, who died of AIDS in 1992 and was a dancer and actor in the Swinging London of the 70s and 80s. He was Diane's greatest inspiration, and she evokes the charming, super talented, and loving brother who made commercials such as: “Opal Fruits: made to make your mouth water," and was a graceful and popular dancer on the BBC television hit The Young Generation. He left her a tidy fortune.

Diane channels her older brother channeling his favorite singer, Dusty Springfield, wearing wig, gloves and gown as he used to do and singing along with her songs. It’s an incredible, expressive, heartfelt tribute that wherever it has been performed over the years has moved the audience to join in.

When you’re on the Lower East Side for the performance at Dixon Place, there is a plethora of good restaurants. Frankie’s pizzeria has been there a long time, serving individual margarita pizzas (ask for the crust to be extra thin) and a signature fire-roasted eggplant served with hot olive oil and crusty Italian bread and olives.

DISBAND and Tavern on the Green

DISBAND was formed in the late seventies by a group of artists, all female, whose outrageous brand of political theater has been revived for reunion concerts at MoMA PS1 and all over. The recent program of twelve short songs and sketches was standing-room-only at the cool Austrian Cultural Forum in midtown.

In a famous skit, two men compare penises that grow and grow until they're able to have a sword fight with them. In a new one, an empty suit draped over a hanger, center stage, stands in for Gov Rick Perry. Bewigged Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, George Washington and Abigail Adams take turns scolding Rick, addressing corrupt campaign funding, state-sanctioned rape in the form of forced trans-vaginal ultrasounds, and the Constitution’s clearly stated mandated separation of church and state.

DISBAND sketches over three decades old are still very relevant. This “conceptual art punk band of women artists who can’t play any instruments” formed at Franklin Furnace, which was founded by Martha Wilson, one of the night’s performers. (Barbara Kruger and Ingrid Sischy are also members.) This performance also included Ilona Granet, Donna Hennes and worldwide sensation Diane Torr, in town for the US premiere of a film about her Man For a Day workshops

It’s so easy to imagine these fearless artists partying with Pussy Riot.

A walk across Central Park took us to the new Tavern on the Green, recently reopened after four years dark. The colorful crystal chandeliers and art nouveau mirrors were sold off, as well as the topiaries of teddy bears and elephant removed from the garden. Trees around the restaurant that had been strangled in ropes of hot, colored lights have been set free, and nature conservationists consider that in itself an improvement.

Since the bankruptcy filing in 2009, Tavern on the Green has been owned by the city and was revamped in character with the other rustic park buildings inside the park, with a new open kitchen, the original wood-beamed ceilings, and a lively bar, which it never had before. Bartender Savannah will mix you a drink called the Bronx: Dorothy Parker American Gin, orange juice, and sweet and dry vermouths. The old menu used to be all pasta and red meat. Under the direction of Chef Katy Sparks, grilled meat and fish and roasted vegetables are offered, with several ceviches that are popular on both lunch and dinner menus.

Pete Wells said the food isn't "so wonderful that it would lure crowds, but it wouldn't keep them away either," whatever that means. One day at lunch the most popular thing to order was the $18 tuna melt. (If nothing else, it gives you some idea of the pricing.) No bread basket comes with a main course or a main-course salad at the new Tavern on the Green. This can only be a money-saving decision that probably will be rethought as the restaurant fledges, because bread baskets should be de rigueur, even in a gluten-free world.

The Cripple of Inishmaan and Landmark Tavern

Oh Harry, we hardly knew ye! Daniel Radcliffe with Sarah Greene.
The Cripple of Inishmaan, written when playwright Martin McDonagh was only twenty-five, is based on real events. In the 1930s, a filmmaker visited a remote Aran island to make a documentary, The Man of Aran.

McDonagh’s dark comedy takes place in 1934. Christopher Oram’s circular set rotates three locations: the store, the shore and the bedroom. The sparse visuals and ocean sounds take us right there. Billy, played by Daniel Radcliffe, is lame and orphaned, taken in by two shop keeper aunties, sensationally played by Gillian Hanna and Ingrid Craigie. We love hearing them worry over Billy’s future and his fascination with cows. Radcliffe (a.k.a Harry Potter) is totally convincing as Billy, book smart but bored, and utterly captivated by red-haired Helen, played by Sarah Greene, a sharp-tongued beauty who has been known to smash eggs over people’s heads. The aunts fret over this evil, wicked Helen's effect on gentle Billy’s fragile heart.

Just when you think it’s calm, the town gossip, fabulously played by Pat Shortt, reveals that a Hollywood filmmaker is casting a movie on a neighboring isle and taking the cast to LA. Billy decides to sneak away with a group of young hopefuls and try his luck. Surprisingly, the filmmakers are looking for a “cripple.” But Hollywood does not hold the charm of Inishmaan for Billy, and he returns to what is familiar: verbal and physical abuse, but it’s home. 

Scotch Eggs
The Landmark Tavern opened in 1868 as a waterfront saloon on the ground floor. Prohibition changed the upstairs living quarters into a speakeasy. Michael Younge, the current co-owner, tells us that the tavern has two ghosts: a Confederate soldier who died in the tub upstairs and a girl who wasted away of consumption. 

For one hundred plus years Landmark has served Guinness on tap and corned beef. Now pastas, chicken wraps and burgers, but Irish fare will always be on the menu: bangers and mash, fish and chips and Scotch eggs. Shepherds pie with peas, carrots, beef, onions, and a ribbon of mashed potatoes made my husband very happy. French fries come with almost everything and the side of garlic mayo was tasty enough for a refill. On Mondays Celtic musicians (flute, banjo, accordion and fiddle) gather in back and play from 8-11.

Mothers and Sons and Balkanika

Tyne Daly is a force to reckon with in Terrence McNally’s new Mothers and Sons. Daly won a best actress Tony nomination for originating the role of tightly wound, unapologetic Katherine Gerard, who shows up unannounced from Texas at the New York home of her late son’s lover, twenty years after her son’s death from AIDS. She insists that she does not want to stay long, and she can’t bring herself to leave. Her helpless outrage has little place in this swank Upper West Side apartment, where Cal lives blissfully with his new husband and adopted son. He should never have let Katherine in the door, but he doesn’t throw her out, and that’s what makes it interesting.

Frederick Weller as Cal and his partner Will (Bobby Steggert) go about the evening rituals of bath and bedtime for their six-year-old, Bud, while Katherine plants herself in the living room with a scotch, sentimentally remembering Andre, her late son. Cal misses him too, but has gone forward since Andre died. Katherine can’t and won't. Who was hurt the most is one of the topics for discussion. She’s angry and out of touch—and then very funny. It’s heartbreaking to watch. Sheryl Kaller directs. McNally’s many plays and screenplays include Master Class, Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Dead Man Walking, and Frankie and Johnny.

Balkanika Restaurant serves healthy Mediterranean / Yugoslavian fare in a cozy, dark wood, deep-set room. From the street you’d never guess how far back the dining room goes. Old World manners prevail. A bartender lets you sit for as long as you like. However, two flat screens were muted but on—one had a chef prepping Balkan dishes including beef burek like we had for dinner, and the French Open was on the other. It’s an unwelcome restaurant trend to have multiple TVs and recorded music playing simultaneously.  

The colorful meze sampler platter has a choice of one, six, or eighteen spreads, served with toasted, whole-wheat pita triangles. After all eighteen were sampled, the favorites were walnut paste, artichoke with Parmesan, mushroom with sour cream, and Urnebes (feta, spicy red pepper flakes, egg whites, garlic and olive oil). The wine and beer selection includes Croatian, Macedonian and Turkish brands. Only five desserts, besides chocolate fondue, include Nutella raspberry plazma (minced cookies) crêpe.

After Midnight and R Lounge

Best-dressed Broadway musical for us, costumes by Isabel Toledo, was After Midnight, recommendable on the basis of its clothing alone: the bejeweled, fingerless opera gloves, slinky gowns, black tuxedos with black top hats—and white tuxedos with white top hats. It took the Tony for choreography, no surprise. Julius “iGlide” Chisolm and Virgil “Lil’O” Gadson are worth a show of their own, not to mention Karine Plantadit and the synchronized tuxedoed quintet.

Recreation of Harlem’s Cotton Club has been attempted many times, by Martin Scorsese among others. Every other version tempered high times with low seriousness, at least in one tune that hinted at the dark side to artistic life, almost as a corrective to the joy and abandon of the rest. Not so After Midnight, which banishes the blues and is a total, screaming joy at ninety minutes (no intermission).

The Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars big band recreates the Duke Ellington sound, which will reverberate for days after you have seen the show. And the singers are perhaps even more amazing than the dancers. Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight will be taking turns as featured singer. In February, k. d. lang made her well-publicized Bdway debut as After Midnight’s featured performer. 

The night we were there, “American Idol” discovery Fantasia Barrino blew us away with her distinctive renderings, total engagement with music and audience, and blasé, nonchalant way of leaving the stage when she finished. Toledo barely covers Fantasia in a fringed costume that Rihanna might feel comfortable in.

The inspirational, soigné, comic genius Adriane Lenox is the Cotton Club habitué who embodies the spirit of not just After Midnight, but nightclubs everywhere, and is the font of all wisdom in Women Be Wise, by Sippie Wallace. In her two numbers the audience seriously falls in love. Adriane Lenox was new to us, but now we’re dying to see her in the film The Butler.

The singing is worth a show of its own, particularly risqué ballads like Women Be Wise. Creole Love Call, known as “the orgasm song,” sung by Rosena M. Hill Jackson, was as tender as it was shocking. It had more plot than the entire play.  After Midnight has a very loose plot of two of the dancers getting hitched, then one of them dying—though reviving long enough to jump out of the casket and have one last dance. Yes, that is quite a plot. But it’s a bit sketchy—whereas Roseana M. Hill Jackson‘s orgasm had three acts and a couple of subplots.

Julius "iGlide" Chisolm

 R Lounge, in the Renaissance Hotel in Times Square, has that view that you see with the ball dropping on New Year’s Eve. On any night but New Year’s you enjoy an almost reasonably priced, more-than-adequate tasty meal. The chefs work hard to make it memorable, thus the 99-cent homemade potato chips on the menu are unavoidably everyone’s starter. The chips are good but save your appetite for a healthy main course such as seared salmon with Israeli couscous and vegetables.

On an average weeknight office workers—mainly female—share apps and cocktails or even sit alone and talk on their cell phones. When you feel on top of the world you go to R Lounge—or when you need to unwind by yourself, apparently. Women eating alone is a great recommendation for any restaurant. It shows that the place is cool, meets a certain high standard (the ladies’ room is lovely, in fact, with ikebana, an artistic sink, and gentle lighting), and is, moreover, romantic: not a sports bar. And possibly it has a romantic view out the window.

The view comes with no cover charge most days. Maneuvering yourself into the window seat may take some tries. But if you go there on New Year’s Eve, it will cost you a million dollars (actually, one thousand dollars) to sit at that very same table, eating potato chips.

Mama Mia and Jekyll & Hyde

Mama Mia! opened on Broadway thirteen years ago and still fills the house with ABBA fans. In the 70s, single and pregnant Donna opens a resort on an island in Greece. Twenty years later, her daughter decides to get married and the three possible fathers show up for the wedding. In the film starring Meryl Streep as hippie Donna the footage of Greece is breathtaking. But in the stage version you get invited to the party.

The audience sang along and rocked out which no doubt they do at every performance of Mama Mia! around the world. Theatre veteran Judy McLane, after seven and a half years of playing Donna’s girlfriend, now plays Donna. Her strength, relaxed delivery, and vocal pop chops are perfect for the role. She is Donna. Trio numbers with sidekicks Lauren Cohn (Rosie) and Corinne Melancon (Tanya understudy) were fun. The young lovers were precipitous and hunky. Dance numbers got the audience up and swinging their Spandex-clad hips. The florescent swimsuit and flippers song was too much fun. Both my eight-year-old daughter and seventy-seven-year-old mother-in-law loved it.

Jekyll & Hyde is a haunted restaurant and bar in Times Square named for 19th century grave robbers Burke and Hare, who inspired the book by Robert Louis Stevenson. There’s a choice of two entrances from the street: one normal and the other scary. Impromptu science experiments, talking wall sconces, and unexpected guests at your table are the norm. The Asian salad with cashews, mango, red peppers, and soy ginger sauce was surprisingly good. Burgers and hearty pasta dishes are also. If you want to avoid the weekend crowd you can pay for a J&H membership. Fifty dollars for a one-year Esteemed Pass will get you priority seating and you’ll wiz right past the waiting crowd. The Chamber of Horrors is in a back room. Entertainment fees are tacked onto the bill. 

Early Shaker Spirituals and Omen

Elizabeth LeCompte, Suzzy Roche, Frances McDormand and Cynthia Hedstrom 

In the 19th century guests visited and reported on Shaker services, where hymns were accompanied by barely choreographed, ecstatic dance movements and gestures, such as “shaking off of sins.” The startling Quick Dance is the first illustrated in Kate Valk’s Early Shaker Spirituals, based on a record album of the same name made in the 70s by Maine Shakers. Of two productions of the album, we saw Side One, which includes 'Tis the gift to be simple, 'Tis the gift to be free, 'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.” 

Having enjoyed the mischief of Kate Valk in such Wooster Group productions as North Atlantic, we missed seeing her onstage. Hilton Als called Valk “the Meryl Streep of Downtown.” Used to usual Wooster shenanigans, a couple in the audience laughed distractingly to Early Shaker Spirituals, but the play’s serious intent was never in doubt.

Among the Shakers are Elizabeth LeCompte and Suzzy Roche, who looks like the ultimate Shaker, a Dorothea Lange Dust Bowl figure, even though we know her as hip Suzzy Roche, member of the singing group The Roches. The perfection of Frances McDormand (Fargo’s Marge Gunderson) in a bonnet raises this event to a religious experience. She sings “My life I freely have laid down, to bear the cross and wear the crown.” You entered the theater a jaded sinner and leave feeling clean and new.

The spare set by Elizabeth LeCompte and Jim Clayburgh is easy enough to reproduce as the production tours Europe. An electric reading lamp reminds us how the Shakers, for all their spartan living, were among the first to wire their homes for electricity and drive around in cars. They were pastry chefs and made a different pie for every month of the year. As songwriters they were Transcendentalist poets, and they invented the clothespin, metal pen nibs, flat broom, wringer washing machine, and wrinkle-free clothing. So what if their dancing looked weird?

They are mostly known for cabinetry, and every museum in the US displays something Shaker. Founded by illiterate English factory worker Ann Lee, she and eight of her disciples came to America in 1774. The Shakers were at their height in 1840. They were celibate and adopted into the community orphans and runaway slaves, in some cases paying for the slaves' freedom. Everyone called each other brother and sister and had equal rights.

Because we know them for their furniture, essentially, a more elaborate set with unpainted wooden Shaker chairs might have suggested that Early Shaker Spirituals was about to crack the mystery of the Shakers, but its aim is more simple.  

Kyoto-style Omen restaurant in Soho

Omen A Zen, in Soho, is the single offshoot of a historic fish and udon restaurant in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. The highly refined Kyoto aesthetic is plain and unadorned.

Kyoto cuisine may taste bland at first, then you realize the ingredients are so fresh that little seasoning is involved or needed. Tzukemeno, pickled vegetables, are white and yellow daikon or radishes and cabbage gently pickled, with textures and flavors sharpened by the lightest treatment. If you're not used to raw food, there are cooked dishes, including grilled salmon or chicken teriyaki and broiled eel.

Chewy, thick udon noodles with broth, crushed sesame seeds, and a photogenic bowl of slivered roots (lotus, ginger, scallion and burdock), vegetables and seaweed. The noodles, imported fresh from Kyoto, and broth are served cold or hot. There is a changing seasonal menu that includes their eggplant with sesame-miso sauce and buckwheat soba noodles other times of the year.

Though Omen has the look of a rustic Kyoto teahouse, the New York restaurant has made some changes from the original Omen, where every piece of pottery and every sake cup was made by a potter. It still feels like Kyoto, though the dessert menu includes green tea tiramisu. What’s shocking is to enter such a traditional and lofty Japanese restaurant without leaving your shoes at the door.

Cleopatra's Needle and Debutante

Cleopatra’s Needle on the Upper West Side is a no-cover-charge jazz haunt. French and Japanese tourists can be seen picking at their food (Middle Eastern salad platters and hamburgers, mostly). Drinks are not the strong point either: a frozen margarita, served in a milk shake glass, was half foam. Come here for open-mic night and the changing jazz ensemble.

If you were wondering where all the single men are in New York, they are lining the bar at Cleopatra’s Needle. The girls in Debutante would consider them “practice” and might learn about Chet Baker and John Coltrane in the process.
Debutante Rochelle Slovin, photo by Bailey Carr

Ryann Weir’s cheerful debut, Debutante, created and directed by Annie Tippe, takes place in the 80s of big hair, Tab and television's “Dynasty.” Three young heiresses stop their personal evolutions long enough to learn a complicated, antiquated, and highly questionable ritual. The disparities of rich and poor are not so much the topic as the tension between tradition and moving forward. Keilly McQuail is Barbara, a third-generation debutante living with her grandmother, Sylvia (Rochelle Slovin, pictured), who teaches her the cotillion dip and “People who uphold tradition are impervious to change.”

Elizabeth Alderfer, Keilly McQuail and Anna Abhau Elliott can curtsy
Brenda (Elizabeth Alderfer) wants to run off with the Indian foreign exchange student (Eshan Bay) and skip the cotillion, but first shoot her parents so they’ll never know. Extreme dieters, offered a carrot stick Brenda says, “No thanks, I’m allergic.”

Frankie (the charming Anna Abhau Elliott), an equestrian, also knows what she likes, and it’s not the debutante world. She gives a  rousing eulogy to her late show horse, a “Polish-Arabian” (there really is such a breed). Money can’t buy you love, unless you can afford a Polish-Arabian.

All the Way and Southern Hospitality

President Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas is known for escalating the Vietnam War in the sixties. All the Way shows us Johnson before that, when he recognized that he would make his mark by ushering in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with Martin Luther King, Jr. (movingly played by Brandon J. Dirden, who does an exact rendering of MLK’s voice). Robert Schenkkan’s play is prescient, as a discriminatory voter suppression law in Wisconsin was just this week struck down as unconstitutional.

Bryan Cranston’s LBJ is a non-stop powerhouse of stories, craft, and passion. Cranston gives a master class in how to pull strings, wheedle your way with detractors, stab people in the back (Johnson would not congratulate MLK on his Nobel Peace Prize), and gloat over any tiny victory. With his sincere Midwestern VP, Hubert H. Humphrey (superbly acted by Robert Petkoff), they made a formidable pair. Betsey Aidem is super as Katharine Graham and does as much as she can with the oddly retro role of Lady Bird. Rob Campbell and Richard Poe do those rapscallians, George Wallace and Everett Dirksen, to the hilt. William Jackson Harper is a standout as Stokely Carmichael.

Like the strong cast, the set and staging are marvelous. Within Senate-like seating, often occupied by the players keeping watch, a small stage works marvels, including chillingly exhuming the body of a civil rights worker murdered in the Mississippi Burning, against a Johnson campaign speech. While other theatrical productions have used video to tell the story, this time it really works, with live performance feeds and archival footage, including Johnson’s swearing in on Air Force One.

All the Way is part one of a trilogy that Robert Schenkkan is perfecting at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We’re looking forward to part two. All the Way shows a leader revealing his mind and soul. It’s not a criticism, but the ending reminded us of an equally ambitious history play last season about Ann Richards, Ann by Holland Taylor. At the end, Taylor stands at the edge of the stage and delivers her last, deeply personal story of the night. It was a delicious nightcap that sent the audience out in tears after thunderous applause. Cranston’s version of that, delivered with remarkably realistic tears, left the audience cheering wildly, however dry-eyed. But then Robert Caro, too, has had a hard time wrapping up the story of LBJ.

Memphis ribs at Justin Timberlake's

You’d expect a suave, swank product out of the artist who gave us “Suit and Tie,” but Justin Timberlake’s rustic restaurant reveals his Texas roots. The signature drink is a refreshing tequila cocktail called the 901, the area code of Memphis, with muddled mint, raspberry and agave. If you like meat, you will love the main course: spareribs brushed with smoky BBQ sauce or dry-rubbed. One of the sides is mac and cheese and another collard greens—clearly very fresh collard greens but overly seasoned. With all the strong flavors in the rest of the meal, greens could be served on the bland side. Chopped salads and the desserts (especially Grandma Sadie’s bourbon pecan pie) looked great at a distance. 

Southern Hospitality began on the Upper East Side, but found its true following when it moved to Hell’s Kitchen. It’s packed out with a young business crowd every weekday at lunch and, particularly, on weekends for a brunch that includes limitless bellinis and mimosas for $15. A bluegrass band plays on Sundays. We expected to hear Justin Timberlake on the soundtrack, but didn’t. Timberlake doesn’t want to hear his own music at his restaurant. That’s how cool he is. Words lining the room are taken from a jam session at Sun Record Studios in Memphis in 1956, with Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. Manager Josh Livesay, pictured, impressed upon us how genuine the whole enterprise is, recommended the fabulous dry-rubbed ribs, and said the cornbread is extraordinary.