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.