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On the Culture Front: Airline Highway, 'Tis Pity She's A Whore, Holiday Cocktail Lounge, and More

05/05/2015 06:22 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2016

Broadway to many means big dance numbers and actors hurtling outsized emotions into the rafters. While there are certainly plenty of tiresome revivals and knockoffs alike that make an all too vivid case for this, there are also bold producers remaking the landscape of commercial theater with subversive, challenging and deeply moving musicals and plays. Robert Askins' "Hand to God" is shining example: a gleeful, sharp-tongued critique of religious dogma wrapped in a madcap sex farce. Steven Boyer proves to be a master of physical comedy as a teenager possessed by his hand puppet and immerses himself so deeply in the role that an exorcism seems inevitably a part of his post-show routine. Sarah Stiles plays his love interest with the perfect balance of disinterest and desire that, er...climaxes in a scene of obscene puppetry. The entire cast, including Marc Kudish as a doltish pastor, is top notch with Mortiz von Stuelpnagel at the helm, pulling the strings in this acutely calibrated production.

There's no song list in the program for Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron's fluid musical, "Fun Home," about caged desires that fester inside a suburban funeral home. Songs don't start and stop with a clearly delineated structure so much as they burst out of the characters' heads with an animated trajectory that brings Alison Bechdel's autobio-graphic novel to life. Played by three actresses (Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas and Emily Skeggs), we see Bechdel embrace her sexuality as her father (played with a multitude of dimensions by Michael Cerveris) is destroyed by his. This contrast is the emotional anchor of the show and culminates with the heart wrenching ballad, "Days and Days," sung with a restrained yet searing melancholy by Judy Kuhn who plays Bechdel's mother. Kron organically weaves humor throughout the book, which brings levity to the intermissionless show while making the final punch all the more visceral.

There's much jostling in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall," an epic illustration of King Henry VIII's whims that lead to the creation of the Church of England and quite a few beheadings. Ben Miles embodies the oft-villainously portrayed Thomas Cromwell as a pragmatist who's just playing the game. Indeed, there's a lot in "Wolf Hall" that's reminiscent of the slow grind of politics in the current season of "House of Cards." Unfolding over six hours, there's also the same giddiness of being fully immersed in a narrative. It helps that Jeremy Herrin's staging is as precise as a fine ballet and Paule Constable and David Plater's naturalistic lighting design that casts shadows beautiful and ominous across the stage is nothing short of a work of art.

Red Bull doesn't just shine a light on neglected classics, the visceral theatre company lays bare the emotional core of a work while staying true to the text. Artistic director Jesse Berger's new production of "'Tis Pity She's a Whore" is no exception. John Ford's Jacobean drama is like "Romeo and Juliet" on speed, imagining the star-crossed couple as brother and sister and serving up a delicious condemnation of the Church in the process. Loud and frenzied scenes pour the guts of these tragic characters across the stage and we watch with mouth agape. Ford plays with Shakespearean conventions and well as the human limits to laugh at the violent and perverse expressions of our hearts. To call it a black comedy would diminish the wrenching experience of this top notch revivial - but there are laughs to be had.

"Airline Highway" also traffics in the darkest edges of humor and the lightest mist of despair. Lisa D'Amour's superbly constructed and deeply felt play is a vivid peak into the rising gap of income inequality. To her credit, those words are never mentioned once just observed as the residents of a cheap motel on the outskirts of New Orleans give a sendoff to their matriarch. Throughout the show I was reminded of the penetrating sadness of Beckett, but D'Amour's dialogue is of a more naturalistic bent. So much so that there were moments when I forgot I was in a theater. It's rare to both love and appreciate a play so fully and simultaneously. That it didn't receive a Tony nom for best play is just a reminder of the arbitrary nature of awards.

For a musical about Shakespeare (and one that received ten Tony noms), there isn't much substance to "Something Rotten!," the slight new show by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell. The bard is portrayed as a larger-than-life rock star somewhere between Wayne Newton and Bon Jovi who sings a song called "Hard to be the Bard" among other forgettable ditties that don't just dabble in pastiche but sample signature phrases from many popular Broadway shows. If it were performed on a boat sailing the Mediterranean, I'd be happy to drift asleep to it after a four-course dinner, but as a main course, it's pretty bland.

"The Visit" is a bizarre revenge tale that unfolds like a romantic comedy. It's many revisions have been well-documented and their lines show as you can see the greatness that is John Kander and Fred Ebb wrestling with themes, melodies, and an overarching way to tie them into one experience. It made me think of the fine line between genius and failure. For as bad as it is - oftentimes laugh-out-loud bad, "The Visit" is not a boring or complacent show. It never feels like its creators are just running through the motions, and that makes me grateful to have seen it. What's missing is the ever-elusive connective tissue of humanity that ties logic, feeling and thought into a gathering storm. There's a moment towards the end when Kander's music becomes Cabaretesque but it is ever-so-fleeting.

Austin Pendleton's production of "Hamlet" at CSC imagines the classic tragedy unfolding throughout the drawn-out wedding reception of Hamlet's mother to Claudius. While this is intriguing, it ultimately causes the play to feel stagnant as a giant banquet table obscures the stage for much of the play. Peter Sarsgaard, who's a fine actor both on stage and screen, struggles to fully embody the troubled prince. Too often I felt I was watching an actor giving the performance of his lifetime instead of a son grieving the loss of his father.

On the cocktail front, the Holiday Cocktail Lounge on St. Mark's Place, which was once said to frequented by Keith Richards, the Ramones, and Allen Ginsburg, has been resurrected by Pirate's Booty emperor Robert Ehrlich. The log cabin-chic atmosphere is utterly inviting, as are the cocktails. The impossibly smooth Tin Cup white sangria (pinot grigio, pama, orange bitters, and its namesake whiskey) proves the dark spirit can hold its own as a summer beverage while the Long Pour Shuffle (Stranahan's whiskey, Aromatique amaro, and Peychaud's bitters) is a drink to savor on one of the bar's retro-leather couches. The food menu is also top-notch with standouts like mini cubano sandwiches and beignet sliders that find the perfect balance between fast food flavor punch and restaurant refinement.

Across town, the unassuming façade of the Flatiron Lounge gives way to prohibition age sophistication. The art deco décor is as warm as it is stylish, and Julie Reiner's cocktails, including the whiskey-based southland sipper, are as quaffable as they are complex. Her new book, "The Craft Cocktail Party," details how to make the sipper and many others and is organized by party occasion and season, making it a nice companion for DIY cocktail parties.

Opening from a 15-story atrium, spaciousness abounds at Atrio in the Conrad hotel. It's easy to feel you're in another city sitting in oversized leather chairs and munching on appetizers like grilled Portuguese octopus and a generous helping of Maplebrook Farm burrata from Vermont. The Niman Ranch strip steak is one of the tastiest I've had in a while and is a complete meal with the winter vegetable caponata and fingerling potatoes doused in a mysteriously delicious, creamy and slightly spicy sauce. A ricotta cheesecake with blueberry compote and lemon curd came off as a sweet cheese and fruit platter and proved a satisfying way to cap off the meal.