The Surrender and Chez Josephine

Laura Campbell in Toni Bentley's The Surrender. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Toni Bentley’s 2004 memoir challenged assumptions. She took control of her soul and her physical self like no one else had done before, and found joy and empowerment through sex that was paid for, massage included. (At least that was my take on it.) The dancer heroine in the one-woman stage production finds her bliss in an obsession with a lover that she shares with a jealous actress known as “the blonde.” This is to say the story has been restyled a bit, not softened. The Surrender is way kinkier than Kinky Boots.

The casting is perfect—the dark-haired Laura Campbell, born in Northern Ireland, wise-cracking, self-mocking, with expert eye contact, holds the audience rapt for nearly an hour and a half without intermission. If another actor were to split the task, say, the legendary lover or the blonde, they would inevitably be duds next to her.

Bentley’s heroine is touching when she confides, “It is so difficult to be one’s self in one’s own sex life.” She had looked for a man who combined “the erotic and the spiritual” but typically found only half of the equation. Inspiringly, she finally got what she wanted sexually after recovering from a hip problem. “Bliss is a post-pain zone,” when “death dies and paradise is entered.” Who knows their body better than a dancer? She gives a biology lesson, turning around the vanity mirror to reveal a diagram of the female body.

Besides being a brilliant Guggenheim-winning writer, Toni Bentley is a former New York City ballet dancer, who co-wrote the sensational 1996 memoir of choreographer Balanchine muse, Suzanne Farrell. No one who reads it forgets that Balanchine proscribed his dancers’ weight-loss diet this way: one apple, halved—all day. The sex life described in The Surrender is of course extreme. Bentley’s play makes a case for that.

Josephine Baker, 1906-1975
The fabulous Baker boys, Jean-Claude and Jarry
Named for the most famous and shocking dancer of Paris in the Jazz Age, who was written about by Hemingway and Janet Flanner, Chez Josephine is right next door to the Harold Clurman Theatre. A riotous scene since it opened in the mid-80s, in a building that originally housed a massage parlor, Chez Josephine offers a French menu with large portions, hot sweet potato fries served in a paper cone, and romantically named cocktails—like A Kiss in the Rain: Tanqueray gin, peach schnapps, Amaretto and cranberry juice.

It seems incredible that two youthful and charming sons of Josephine Baker run Chez Josephine. Jean-Claude and Jarry do her proud, creating a mood that is opulent and unstuffy. There’re chandeliers, candlelight, red velvet drapes, piano music, and naked pictures of mother on every wall. As you depart for the eight o’clock curtain, you might be kissed on each cheek.

The Heath and Sleep No More

The Heath, under the High Line, is a massive old nightclub full of actors in period evening attire and featuring the best music of the past. As you enter, a haze of cigarette smoke in the air – but it’s only a subtle stagecraft to plunge you back in time. It's where you want to be, but didn't know it. 

Every table was filled on a Thursday night in this restaurant only two months old. By the summer outdoor seating on a roof garden will be added.

The confident, continental menu features Yorkshire fry-up, quail, meat pies, fish pie, lamb and beef: classics from another era. The Picked and Smoked platter – smoked salmon, blue fish and shrimp, with caper berries, pickled pears and beets – was a stunner (pictured, above right). Grilled scallops with endive, dates and blood orange was our favorite, though everything looked good. People around us all seemed to be ordering three courses, which you don’t often see in New York restaurants. But at the Heath, you want to extend the experience for as long as possible, the better to listen to the sensational 5-piece band and to watch a glamorous couple twirl on the dance floor.

Remember how in old movies, at restaurants like these, a tuxedoed waiter would appear at the table and say, “There’s a phone call for you?” That happens here, only the waiter knows precisely how to pronounce your name (culled from your reservation, or perhaps from a card trick with a seductress in a strapless dress).  “Please follow me,” the waiter says, making eye contact. He takes your arm and leads you to one of a series of phone booths. But then, he follows you inside, and … .

Cannot divulge what happens next, and it wasn’t done with every diner, just the ones who seemed receptive to loosen the stays of convention and play along with a brainy form of spin-the-bottle. Other dramas co-exit at the bar and the coat check. Wander around. The Heath, a complete night out in itself, is actually secondary to the theatrical presentation, Sleep No More, reviewed courtesy of our mystery critic:

From the Punchdrunk theatre company, Sleep No More is an immersive experience wherein the audience dons white masks and embarks on a three-hour exploration through 100 rooms in the fully outfitted McKittrick Hotel. Audience members are not allowed to talk throughout the show, but instead chase after the actors as they dart from scene-to-scene.

As you travel through dark outdoor forests, Victorian living rooms and a hospital, you may run into actors as they dance, pantomime, and sometimes scream at other actors. The show is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as well as Hitchcock’s Rebecca, so you may recognize characters or elements from both even without most of the dialogue. If you’re bold enough, as the host stresses, you may be pulled aside for a one-on-one with the character and come away with a memorable story to tell afterwards. The idea of immersive theater may seem intimidating, but after you’ve experienced Sleep No More, you won't stop talking about it.