Sunday, January 22, 2012

Flourishing Under a Taskmaster in 'Seminar'

Leonard (Alan Rickman), center, addresses Martin (Hamish Linklater), Izzy (Hettienne Park), Kate (Lily Rabe) and Douglas (Jerry O’Connell). Photos by Jeremy Daniel.

BY TAMARA BECK

HOW
much would you pay to invite the criticism and opprobrium of a master?

In “Seminar,” a group of five aspiring novelists each pay the grand sum of $5,000 to engage Leonard (Alan Rickman), a renowned editor and author, to critique their work.

Over the course of a number of weeks, the acerbic Leonard jabs at their weaknesses. It seems that Leonard’s sarcasm is an effective pedagogical tool. He doesn’t offer even faint praise, yet under his tutelage all of the participants find a unique voice.

Plays about writers and writing can be stagnant, seemingly sitting on the page, as it were. Thanks, though, to excellent dialogue, some twisty plot points and a fine cast, Theresa Rebeck’s “Seminar” sparkles with wit and life. It is at the Golden Theatre through 18 March.

Although Leonard is brutally frank with, and even seemingly indifferent to his charges, make no mistake all of his pupils are prodigiously talented. They are a gossipy and knowing group with definite and vastly different expectations of this experience.

For example, Kate (Lily Rabe), who is hosting the sessions in her family’s expansive Upper West Side home, needs liberation from rewriting the same story over and over. Izzy (Hettienne Park) is looking to master the politics of getting published. In her case this may include sleeping to the top of the manuscript pile. Douglas (Jerry O’Connell), the most successful, well connected and already a published author, would seem a perfect target for Izzy’s attentions. Instead, she focuses on Martin (Hamish Linklater), the reluctant genius in the group. HL plays Martin with a nervous skittishness that conveys just how put off he is by Leonard’s teaching style.

The actors are so natural and relaxed in the play’s setting that it is easy to believe that they are studying at a master’s feet. (See video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PiB_ex37i8Q&feature=player_embedded).

Martin (Hamish Linklater), Izzy (Hettienne Park), Kate (Lily Rabe) and Douglas (Jerry O’Connell) are enrolled in a master class in "Seminar."

The speed and wit of TR’s language and the charm of the cast fashion “Seminar” into an engrossing, moving and very funny work. AR, CR, HL each have an emotional monologue that adds drama to the proceedings.

“Seminar” is billed as a comedy, but it is so much more. It sinks its teeth into the nature of ambition and the desire to be special – to succeed and be heard. It’s the big speeches, wondrously spun by each character at his or her turn, that make “Seminar” so compelling and dramatic.

Visit http://www.SeminarOnBroadway.com to learn more about “Seminar.”

Friday, January 20, 2012

'Red Tails' and 'Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close'



INCREDIBLY, “Red Tails” is the first widely released feature film based on the story of The Tuskegee Airmen. HBO’s “The Tuskegee Airmen” (1995) enjoyed a very limited release in theaters, but only after its debut on cable.

For those scratching their heads, the flyboys in question is the U.S. Army Air Corps' 332nd Fighter Group, the all-black combat unit trained at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama around the time of the WWII. They served and fought heroically in a segregated military.

The George Lucas-produced “Red Tails,” which opens today, picks up the action in Italy where the airmen are grounded 100 miles behind enemy lines except for meaningless flight exercises. It is an important film because it puts the spotlight on a piece of American history and military history that continues to linger in the wings. Even today – in the 21st century – one still hears through the grapevine the occasional story of a university history professor, for instance, asserting that no black pilots served during WWII.

If for no other reason in a culture where books are increasingly falling out of favor with the masses, “Red Tails” should be required viewing. The service of these young men to their country should be as well-known to the general public as the number of days Kim Kardashian was married.

While “Red Tails” is important viewing, it is aside from some spectacular fight sequences not an engaging film. In fact, it has many cringe-worthy moments … More shortly.



Also opening today is “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” another film based on true events.

Specifically, it is adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer’s best seller about precocious and extremely curious 11-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn in his acting debut) who finds a key left behind by his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) who died in one of the Twin Towers on 9/11. Oskar sets out across the boroughs in an Alice in Wonderland-like pursuit of the item that the key opens.

As with the book, many reviewers are ambivalent. Whether they like the film or not, they cite the nature of the material, wondering whether it is exploitative; some disdainfully dismiss it as cloying. The tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001 is still fresh in the psyche of many Americans, particularly New Yorkers and those in the Tri-state area. It is sacred territory on which one must tread extremely carefully, lest s/he upset tender sensibilities. Generally, reviewers based in the Northeast are a bit more circumspect than those from other regions.

There is almost universal agreement, though, that the film is well-acted. For his turn as Oskar, TH is getting a lot of positive notice in a cast that also includes Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, John Goodman, Max von Sydow and Jeffrey Wright.

“Red Tails” is rated PG-13 for some sequences of war violence. “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close" is rated PG-13 for emotional thematic material, some disturbing images and language.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

At 20th Restaurant Week, Good Food Among 300-Plus

From Tocqueville Restaurant, Grilled Stuffed Calamari (w/smoked pepper rullie and citrus-fennel relish) and Carrot Curry Soup (w/coconut milk and grilled eggplant puree). Photos by Michel Ann O'Malley.

Head’s Up: It’s a New Year and we at VEVLYN’S PEN will be looking at food a little differently going forward. Our mission to introduce You – our readers and visitors – to good, whole food will continue. The only change is that the information will be more relevant than ever to your health and well-being. Indeed, it is imperative that we all understand as much as possible about the food we eat. You may recall that Yours Truly joined the Occupy Wall Street movement (http://http://www.nycga.net/; http://www.bit.ly/u9PF45). While I am involved in various OWS initiatives, I am more immersed in food justice. To that end, from henceforth and evermore VEVLYN’S PEN food coverage will reflect the belief that communities everywhere should have the right and tools to grow, sell and consume unsullied food from nearby that was produced in a way that respects the land, animals, people and the planet. We hope that our food coverage will inspire You to eat and buy good food. In other words, food that is as local, organic, sustainable and family-scale as possible. All in the cause of optimal health and well-being.

WHERE to eat when there are more than 300 restaurants to choose from? Welcome to the dining dilemma that is the 20th anniversary edition of Restaurant Week aka NYC Restaurant Week Winter 2012.

A sound approach is to go with good food, meaning food that is good to you and good for you, because it was raised right. Beacon Restaurant & Bar sets out a good table. What do we have here, Pumpkin Apple Soup (w/spiced spun sugar) to start. From there Venison Paillard(w/red currant & black pepper vinaigrette) is waiting. A possible closer is Chocolate Mince Meat Tart (w/apple jack hard sauce & chocolate covered bacon).

Not at all a bad deal for a three-course, $24.07 lunch or $35 dinner, which continues to be the going rate for Restaurant Week meals.

One avenue to finding other good-food restaurants is by cross-referencing the Restaurant Week list with the Eat Well Guide (http://www.eatwellguide.org/). The guide is a free online directory that lists sources of fresh, locally grown and sustainably produced food in the United States and Canada. At the Restaurant Week site (http://www.nycgo.com/restaurantweek/), click on the neighborhood tab to get a list of restaurants.

The interior of Fishtail by David Burke. Much of the catch served at the restaurant is captured by fishermen working on the restaurant's very own fishing boat. Photo courtesy of Fishtail by David Burke.

From the list choose a restaurant at random. Next, type the zip code of the restaurant into the appropriate box on the Eat Well Guide Advanced Search tab; indicate what mile radius you wish the search to include i.e., 1, 5, 10, 20 and so on. Finally, select the desired production methods: Grass fed, Biodynamic, Organic, Non-certified organic, Pasture raised, No antibiotic use and Pesticide free.

Hover the cursor on the production method and a box appears that explains the definition of the method. Pasture raised, for instance, means the “animal was raised on pasture, rather than being fattened on grain in a feedlot or barn.” (A great source of food production terms is the Sustainable Dictionary, http://www.sustainabletable.org/intro/dictionary/).

Using the aforementioned variables served as good bait for nabbing Fishtail by David Burke. Among the offerings are Cracker Crabcake (w/tomato marmalade & cumin-citrus and Tropical Fruit Sundae (w/guava sorbet, passion fruit & pineapple). For dinner instead of seafood an intelligent choice is possibly Smart Chicken (w/polenta, spaghetti squash, baby apple).

At Toqueville Restaurant just about every dish comes with a wine – mostly French, bien sur – suggestion. What a clever bit of marketing since the Restaurant Week deal excludes Saturdays, tax, gratuity and beverages. Tocqueville recommends the 2009 Côtes du Rhone Belleruche M. Chapoutier (Rhone, France) with the Carrot Curry Soup (w/coconut milk and grilled eggplant puree). The best mate for the Herb Tagliatelle (w/rainbow swiss chard, toasted pine nuts and lemon parmesan foam) is the 2008 Cabernet Franc Francois Cartier (Loire, France).

The Wood Oven Roasted Salmon with horseradish & watercress, left, and Chocolate-Chocolate Chip Souffle, above, are on the Restaurant Week menu at Beacon Restaurant & Bar. Photos courtesy of Beacon Restaurant & Bar.

If there is room left for dessert, the 2008 Ice Wine Schmitt Sohne (Rheinhessen, Germany) stands ready to accompany the Hazelnut Mille-Feuille (w/cappuccino ice cream) ... Sounds good, no?

Officially, Restaurant Week runs for 20 days, through 10 Feb. But tradition will likely hold and it will be extended. Stay tuned.

Learn more about NYC Restaurant Week Winter 2012, including reservation information, at (http://www.nycgo.com/restaurantweek/.

Friday, January 13, 2012

In 'The Iron Lady,' a Great Actress and a Grand Dame

Meryl Streep as UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady." Photo by Alex Bailey, Courtesy of Pathe Productions Ltd.

WHAT is it about Meryl Streep and her extraordinary ability to portray fascinating women with pinpoint accuracy.

The list is impressive: Karen Blixen (“Out of Africa”), Vogue editor Anna Wintour (“The Devil Wears Prada”), Top Chef Julia Child (“Julia & Julia”). And now, Margaret Hilda Thatcher, Baroness Thatcher.

“The Iron Lady” chronicles the life of MT, particularly her near-meteoric rise and reign as the first and so far the only female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. The film premieres in U.S. theaters today.

MS is often heralded as the greatest U.S. actress of all time. Perhaps she has garnered such praise because she effortless owns a character mind, body and soul. If she is the finest actress this young country has produced to date, that is indeed impressive. Lesser greats would include Joan Crawford, Bette Davis (MS’ film idol), Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor.

Without doubt, in “The Iron Lady” MS is MT. Makeup notwithstanding, she bears a striking resemblance to this shopkeeper’s daughter. Her moniker, “woman of a thousand accents,” serves her well in this role, too. She nails MT’s speech patterns with barely a syllable out of place. Her performance goes beyond diction, however, to facial ticks, body language and the rhythm of her pantherlike movements. Watching MS do MT is like watching the lady herself whose legendary will was as flinty as they come, hence her moniker. (See trailers at: http://www.bit.ly/zSX47l and http://www.bit.ly/yKQ9rN).

“The Iron Lady” has been eagerly anticipated – MT, though now in her 80s and sickly remains a controversial figure more loathed than loved – and many thought MS would knock this one out of the park. It seems she has, earning a nod in the best actress category on just about every leading critics list. On Monday, she won the New York Film Critics Circle Awards prize for best actress.

“The Iron Lady” had a limited release in December to qualify for Academy Award consideration. The only surprise would be if MS’ name isn’t listed in the best actress category. It would represent her 17th nomination, another reason she is considered the nation’s finest actress. Her closest competition is KH (12). If MS wins it would be her third. KH has four and the designation as the most Oscar-decorated actress. As incredible as it may seem, MS last took home the statuette nearly 20 years ago, in 1982 for “Sophie’s Choice.”

Awards aside, the actress gives another stellar performance in “The Iron Lady” and has been the subject of most of the buzz. It takes a village, though, doesn't it? She has strong support, particularly from Jim Broadbent as the older Denis Thatcher, MT’s husband and campaign contributor.

"The Iron Lady” is rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief nudity.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

'Ocean's Kingdom' Springs From Unexpected Pedigree

New York City Ballet principal dancer Amar Ramasar and Company in "Ocean's Kingdom." Photos by Paul Kolnik.

BY TAMARA BECK

THERE’S
bound to be a certain amount of buzz when a member of The Beatles (Sir Paul McCartney) is commissioned to write a score for a major ballet company (New York City Ballet) by its savvy choreographer-director (Peter Martins).

Add to the excitement the commissioning of a fashion-forward designer, also the composer’s daughter (Stella McCartney), to create the costumes. Then the new ballet (“Ocean’s Kingdom”) becomes an event!

“Ocean’s Kingdom” premiered in September and is on the program for 19 Jan., 21 Jan., 24 Jan., 27 Jan and 29 Jan. Afterward, it goes into the repertory at the David H. Koch Theater. It is PMcC’s first ballet and PM’s 80th or so. The libretto is in four movements, and PMcC’s book has a plot since this is a story ballet. (See rehearsal video at http://www.nycballet.com/company/viewing.html)

Amar Ramasar, Sara Mearns, Robert Fairchild and Georgina Pazcoguin in "Ocean's Kingdom."

In Oceans’s Kingdom, Honorata (Sara Mearns), a princess of the briny deep cavorts with her handmaidens, led by Scala (Georgina Pazcoguin). Meanwhile, King Terra (Amar Ramasar) enters with his thugs known as “Terra Punks.” This invasion is also the occasion for some very nice and vigorous male-partnered movement. Prince Stone (Robert Fairchild), King Terra’s younger brother, is a lover not a warrior; he falls in love with Honorata.

Prince Stone (Robert Fairchild) and Honorata (Sara Mearns) share a tender moment in "Ocean's Kingdom."

The costumes, as designed by SMcC combine standard balletic garb – leotards, short skirts – with modern flourishes. For instance, Honorata and her crew are draped in flowing fabrics, some nicely suggestive of fish, while the Terra Punks have tattooed fabric for their costuming. King Terra wears a mohawk crown.

RF is a debonair leading man. His duets with SM are fluid (pardon the pun), but it seems as if there is always something on the stage to distract: King Terra with one of his henchmen at the back, the rising earth projected from a screen; in the second movement the colorfully zoot-suited “Drunken Lords” (Anthony Huxley, Allen Pfeiffer and David Prottas.) As for AR, a dynamic and intelligent dancer who can be very funny as he was in Susan Stroman’s “For The Love Of Duke” (See http://www.bit.ly/x3ubui), he is misused and under utilized as King Terra.

If the music in the first movement is big and portentous, with strains that sound as if they came from the movie “Exodus," the opening of the second movement is poppy and full of pep. The lightheartedness offers a chance for some comic relief as embodied by the “Drunken Lords” and the energetic sea creatures, including the “Exotic Couple” (Megan LeCrone and Craig Hall) whose dancing and costumes are lively with plenty of zing.

New York City Ballet choreographer Peter Martins, composer Paul McCartney and principal dancer Sara Mearns greet the audience after a performance of "Ocean's Kingdom."

Honorata and Prince Stone no sooner seal their love with a duet than King Terra sweeps in to capture her. She is thrown into a dungeon where she writhes. GP’s melodramatic remorse over Scala’s part in betraying her mistress to King Terra undermines the excellence of her dancing.

There is a happy ending though, when Prince Stone with Scala’s help, frees Honorata from King Terra’s fortress at the end of the third and beginning of the fourth movement. The lovers return to the ocean amid a grand processional.

“Ocean’s Kingdom” is a pleasant ballet, easy on the eyes and ears. However, this fine cast deserves more challenging material.

Visit http://http://www.nycballet.com/ to learn more about “Ocean’s Kingdom” and the New York City Ballet season.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

In 'Stick Fly,' a Family That Has It All – Except


Tracie Thoms as Taylor and Dulé Hill as Kent “Spoon” LeVay, left photo, and Mekhi Phifer as “Flip” LeVay and Rosie Benton as Kimber in “Stick Fly.” Photos by Richard Termine.

BY TAMARA BECK

MONEY
and privilege rarely insulate a family from its dystopias.

In Lydia R. Diamond’s “Stick Fly,” in an open run at The Cort Theatre, both money and privilege play a big part in the LeVay family dynamics.

“Stick Fly” takes place over a weekend in the LeVay’s mansion on Martha’s Vineyard. Harold, the elder son, known to all as “Flip” (Mekhi Phifer) wants to introduce his girlfriend, Kimber (Rosie Benton) to his family, including his dad, Joe (Ruben Santiago-Hudson). His brother Kent (Dulé Hill) has brought his fiancee, Taylor (Tracie Thoms), to meet the folks, too.

The LeVays are extraordinary and extremely accomplished. Joe is a neurosurgeon. Flip has followed the patriarchal business, except he is a plastic surgeon. Kent has a series of degrees. To the chagrin of his father, however, he has chosen to be a writer. Despite his father’s disappointment, even Kevin has succeeded since he is about to become a published novelist.

“Stick Fly” makes for an interesting metaphor for LRD’s examination of the LeVay clan. The play’s title comes from Taylor’s field of expertise. The neglected daughter of a prominent scholar and sociologist, Taylor is an entomologist. As she explains, since flies move so fast that it is hard for scientists to study them, they Krazy Glue them to popsicle sticks and photograph the movements of their wings.

Playwright LRD asks weighty questions about class, fealty, pride and race in “Stick Fly” – the LeVays are black – while punctuating the discussion with genuinely funny dialogue.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Dulé Hill as a father and son who ae sometimes at odds in “Stick Fly.”

Everyone in “Stick Fly” is excellent, but Condola Rashad is extremely moving as the LeVays’ maid who is forced to deal with difficult issues of family and connection. The scenes between TT and RB, which morph from fire to friendly competitiveness, also stand out.

Alicia Keys, a producer of “Stick Fly,” has written transitional music to move the action from scene to scene. These entr’actes have the potential to annoy. Or do they? In one scene, as the young folks come into the kitchen one by one, the music draws out the tension. It’s unnerving but it underscores what is going on – not allowing the “hurry-up” moment be rushed.

There is no curtain so the gorgeously architectural swoops of David Gallo’s complex and opulent set are on display throughout the evening. The majestic grandeur of the house is an eye-catching backdrop for the play.

To learn more about “Stick Fly” visit http://http://www.stickflybroadway.com/.
 
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