On the Culture Front: Jeff Mangum Returns to New York, Valentine's Day Cocktails at Michael's, Wit, and Russian Transport

02/06/2012 12:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2012

Jeff Mangum's big return to New York the other week followed sold-out sets at last year's All Tomorrow's Parties. Adding to the anticipation, Mangum aka Neutral Milk Hotel hasn't actively toured in over a decade, leaving his fans to replay In the Aeroplane Over the Sea as they strung together Anne Frank references. In short, hopes were high for his return. All three nights sold out, and when he took the stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on the Friday I attended, the audience was clearly excited. Roars of applause and random shouting flowed through the evening. A fight even broke out when one overly enthusiastic patron was shushed.

Mangum sat in a chair onstage for the length of the brief 45-minute set as he worked his way through the better part of Aeroplane along with several songs from his first album, On Avery Island. He has a powerful voice that's more like a wail, searing his lyrics into your consciousness, as he strums his guitar right on the frets, which punctuates the sound as it magnifies it. His music stayed with me throughout the weekend; I can still, in fact, hear phrases in my head, but you'd think after a ten-year absence he'd want to stick around on stage a bit longer.

Later in the week I lingered at Michael's as I sampled new cocktails by mixologist Michael Flannery, created for Valentine's Day but available through March. A hot cider drink made with buttered Santa Teresa 1796 rum and topped with a cinnamon stick was my hands down favorite. Belying its name, the Latin Lava is a subtle drink that's just a tad sweet, making it all too easy to have several. I found though the rum is also nice by itself and has a scotch-like warm finish due to the aging process it undergoes. The new bar menu was equally impressive with tasty Korean fried chicken and banh mi sliders among other bite-sized goodness like fried oysters.

On the theater front, Cynthia Nixon is giving a stunning and disarmingly funny performance in Lynne Meadow's revival of Margaret Edson's moving play, Wit. I remember it being powerful, but I don't remember it being so funny. Nixon and Meadow bring a light touch without diminishing its importance. The Broadway debut of this popular play (first presented in off-Broadway at MCC more than a decade ago) feels in some ways like a new show. Edson's language is celebrated; her dissection of John Donne's sonnets acute, and the lightness with which the lines float across the stage make them sink all the deeper when they finally settle. One small quibble: I've always found the final disrobing moment forced and ultimately unnecessary, but as Edson has sworn this to be her only play, it doesn't look like it's going anywhere in the near future.

Janeane Garofalo is the reason to see Russian Transport, Erica Sheffer's otherwise lackluster off-Broadway debut play about a family of Russian immigrants in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Garofalo plays an overbearing matriarch who would do anything for her family. She's so ingrained in her character that it takes a little while to even recognize her onstage. Her accent is good, but her performance goes much deeper, embodying countless small mannerisms that transform her from outspoken star to anonymous immigrant, living largely in the shadows and through her hopes for her family. Unfortunately, Sheffer doesn't quite know what to do with her. The first act drags, but there's hope that larger payoffs are ahead. While the second act is definitely tenser, it ends up imploding on itself before reaching its dramatic potential. Running nearly two-and-a-half hours, there's a lot that could be cut but also much that could be added. There's something to this family Sheffer's created, but it's hidden under layers of artifice. The pace of the dialogue is often off with pauses that stay past their welcome and moments of stillness that threaten to bring the play to a halt, yet the ending is unsatisfying and abrupt.