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On the Culture Front: 'Kung Fu,' 'Bridges of Madison County' and More

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I have to say I reluctantly went to see The Bridges of Madison County. The book and movie have long been a symbol for romanticism run amok, but I'm a big fan of Jason Robert Brown and his songs don't disappoint. Sung by the transcendently talented Kelli O' Hara (Francesca) and Steven Pasquale (Robert), they are a joy to hear, even for a romantic cynic like myself. The opening number "To Build a Home" perfectly encapsulates what binds the people of this small Midwestern town and foreshadows the impossible decision Francesca is faced with in the show's climactic moment.

Brown's music is a pastiche of American roots with a flair of Broadway, but it's the lyrics that ground them. Particularly, the idea of impermanence in human existence when Robert tells Francesca in the deepest throws of their love affair that they are only "one second" in the scope of the world. Directed with sweeping simplicity by Bartlett Sher, the show's strength (not unlike classic operas) is the thunderous emotional waves it harnesses and sustains throughout the show.

David Henry Hwang peers into the fleetingly short life of martial arts artist-turned-actor Bruce Lee in his rich new bio-play, Kung Fu. The show opens with Lee (Cole Horibe) wooing a girl. As she begins to loose interest, the ghost of his father (Francis Jue) interrupts the scene telling him the place of Chinese men. Lee grew up in British-occupied Hong Kong and fighting the image of perceived inferiority first ignited his ambition. Played with a brazen vivacity by Horibe in his terrific New York stage debut, Lee leaps across the stage with boundless energy and the belief that anything is possible.

The show traces his life from his early teaching days to his breakout role as Kato in the Adam West Batman series to his subsequent struggle to maintain a career in a Hollywood where there weren't parts for people who looked like him. At it's core, Kung Fu is a civil rights story that illuminates an unsavory sliver of history with a maximum dose of style. When giving advice to students (movie stars and novices alike), Lee stresses "fighting without fighting," a theme that elegantly runs through the play.

Charles Busch has long been the reigning king (queen?) of camp, but his new play, The Tribute Artist, mines deeper realms of gender identity while sustaining laughs through both acts. Structured as a farce, there are slammin' doors a plenty, along with mysterious unexpected guests and savvy plot twists. Busch and co-star Julie Halston are sublime as a pair of BFF's who craft a scheme to inherit a Manhattan townhouse from a bitter old acquaintance played with acidic precision by Cynthia Harris. Complications arise and hilarity ensues, but some of the most interesting dynamics are the contrasts between Busch's "tribute artist" (a man who channels iconic women while keeping his male identity offstage) with a teenage trans man (played with tenderness by Keira Keeley) whose gender identity is anything but a performance.

The recently closed A Man's A Man deals with the interchangeable identity of military men. Seen as little more than a number, one can easily pass for another by mimicking a distinguishing affectation or two. Director Brian Kulick and songwriter Duncan Sheik rightly play up the farcical elements of this slighter Brecht work to maximum effect. I can't remember laughing so much through a Brecht play.

The Surrender elicits laughs for a different reason. Based on Toni Bentley's memoir of the same name, this one-woman stage show starring Laura Campbell never feels quite real. She gushes about the pleasures of anal sex in over-the-top flowery language, but the emotional core flatlines early on and never recovers.

Playing in the same Theater Row complex and delving into equally explicit territory, Thomas Bradshaw's acutely sensitive yet daringly provocative new play, Intimacy, radiates with subversive light. Focusing on an insular suburban community, Bradshaw lays bare their often-conflicting prejudices and desires. Reviews have focused on the nudity, which there is plenty, but it's merely a device to convey all we hide behind. The cast, directed smartly by Scott Elliott, bring urgency to Bradshaw's characters' search for significance and meaningful connection.

Caryl Churchill's masterfully fragmented new work, Love and Information, breezes through 100 characters just as many minutes. Divided into sections that can be played in any order, the show subverts a need for definitive structure and replaces it with an ever-changing tapestry of snapshots of everyday exchanges. Secrets are revealed and love is confessed, rejected, and fulfilled. In the script, characters names are left blank, lending to a fluid performance where the emphasis is on the language not the people. This has a distancing effect at times, but it's ultimately a thrilling ride through the mind of the most constantly innovative playwright alive.

On the food front, American brasserie Ken and Cook unveiled a new menu in the mutedly elegant Kenmare st. space. The salmon avocado tartare was a perfect starter, balancing the subtleness of the fish and comfort of the avocado with a slight bite of ginger. I can never resist duck breast on a menu, and Chef Hido's pan roasted bird didn't disappoint. Its richly savory taste was heightened with a sweet potato puree and apple gremolata. I didn't get a chance to try the cocktails, but a glass of Sancerre followed by Pinot Noir proved to be an inspired pairing.