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On the Culture Front: Cultural Snapshots and New Fall Cocktails

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With all the traveling I've been doing, I've fallen behind on recording my cultural happenings for this blog. What follows are snapshots of my cultural experiences from the past month.

In The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Mike Daisey draws a complex portrait of the late Apple titan he once admired yet now at least partially despises. He characterizes Jobs as not only a visionary but a showman who deceives his partner, Steve Wozniak, and turns a blind eye to the Chinese sweatshops Apple hires to assemble their products.

What really makes the show, though, is the way Daisey weaves his own story of traveling to Shenzhen, where he gains access to the Foxconn factories by posing as a wealthy American businessman. There's plenty of humor of his adventures that he juxtaposes with descriptions of the devastating conditions, creating an uneasy atmosphere. There's no question this is political theater, but what keeps it from feeling preachy is the way Daisey wrestles with big questions on stage. He doesn't pretend to have all the answers; he just hopes that he can motivate people to ask more questions.

Jon Robin Baitz's Other Desert Cities is about a family's political differences on the surface (republican parents vs. liberal children), but the real issue we learn has to do with a hidden family secret. I really wanted to like this play -- Baitz's TV series Brothers and Sisters is a guilty pleasure of mine -- but it's such a convoluted and melodramatic mess. Every plot point can be seen miles away, and there's enough hand-wringing to last a lifetime.

What's surprising, though, is there are several select passages of dialogue that are sharp, especially Rachel Griffiths's final monologue. It left me haunted but also let-down that the rest of the play fell short of its potential. As a side note, Lincoln Center is having a stellar season at the moment with All-American and Blood and Gifts, which is one of the best plays I've seen in long time.

I also enjoyed Robert Wilson's eerie staging of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera at BAM early last month. Wilson has a way of deconstructing moments to the point where they can feel utterly ridiculous but also incredible raw and oddly moving. That duality suits Threepenny well as it teeters between satire, polemic, and drama.

The show's most recognizable song, "Mack the Knife," gets under your skin and into your brain like good pop songs do, while reminding you of Mack's crimes. He's a charming villain, and Brecht makes us care for him the way Polly does. When he asks, "who is the greater criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?" the audience howls with laughter. That moment connects the show and Brecht's ideas about private property seamlessly to our times. Playing for only three performances, though, the show was gone just nearly as soon as it arrived. Hopefully, BAM will bring it back for a longer run in the future.

This is a fate I would not, unfortunately, wish for Thomas Bradshaw's, Burning, which is currently receiving a much longer run at the New Group. To his credit, Bradshaw doesn't hold anything back in his off-Broadway debut, which includes extended and graphic sex scenes, neo-Nazis, a sleazy Broadway producer and just about everything else except the kitchen sink.

At nearly three hours, though, Burning is an epic mess. It's hard to decipher what Bradshaw is trying to say as the play jumps between the '80s and present with the only link an aspiring actor who's taken in as a teenager by a gay actor/producer couple, who end up sleeping with the boy. There's also a German neo-Nazi who fingers his paralyzed sister while giving her a bath, and an artist who pays a prostitute to pretend to be his recently deceased junkie cousin while he has anal sex with her.

Bradshaw also references his play, Purity, which depicted Ivy league college professors who plan a trip to a third world country to have sex with children. Bradshaw's dialogue is often clunky and unsettling, but at his best, he uses it to hold a mirror to his audience and get us to look at our darkest parts as he did in Purity and Southern Promises. Burning, though, feels like a paranoid delusion where neo-Nazis run free in modern-day Berlin and everyone desires incestuous sex. There could very well be a compelling one-act buried inside, but I can't see it. Still, I'll be looking forward to his next play.

On a final and lighter note, I stopped by Koi the other week to try their new fall cocktails. The Koi Harvest (made with Makers Mark, armaretto disaronno, and apple cider) is my personal favorite but they're all pretty solid and won't give you a sugar high before you buzzed, which can be hard to find. The food, unfortunately, is more hit and miss but I did make an interesting discovery. Koi has a damn good filet mignon making it a great place to bring a non-sushi eater. The dim-lit atmosphere is good for dates too.

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