With the warmer weather and some traveling, I've been getting a bit behind on my cultural coverage around the city. Last weekend, the Food Film Festival wrapped up, and for whatever organizational mishaps - not enough food, overcrowding, etc. - they made up for it with inventive programming. The fest kicked off with an oyster celebration on the sandy Water Taxi Beach at the South Street Seaport. Being so close to the water, it was easy to forget we were still in Manhattan while sitting at picnic tables eating freshly shucked mollusks. They ran out of Harpoon beer early on, but the wine flowed freely throughout the night. My biggest complaint, oddly enough, was the films. They ranged from dull to interesting but incomplete. Craig Noble's exploration of the eroticism of the oyster (The Perfect Oyster) was the best of the bunch, but at 6 minutes, it left me wanting much more.
David Sigal's feature, Florent, which screened the next night, made up for it, making a case for the festival's potential for quality films. 90 minutes flew by as celebs and regular folks alike told wild stories of the now defunct late-night Meatpacking District bistro. It seems it was the kind of place for outcasts and misfits that could only exist in New York - a place where the outrageous was celebrated and acceptance was the norm. It's sadly ironic that they had to close (like too many city institutions) because of greedy landlords.
Owner Florent Morellet was in attendance, and by the looks of it, enjoying himself at the slightly raucous after-party that included quite a bit more nudity than is normally customary at places with passed hors d'oeuvres. The food was all recreated from the original Florent menu, including Evelyne's goat cheese salad, seared rare ahi tuna and their burger. It was all excellent but very hard to get to at the beginning. Waiters wouldn't get two steps from the kitchen before hungry throngs emptied the trays - a testament to the food to be sure, but they might do well adding extra staff for next year.
Crowds abounded at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park for Michael Greif's production of The Winter's Tale, which opened last week. The weather was perfect and Mark Wendland's minimalist sets evoked the mystery of the play, but there was something missing. My friend, a gender studies professor, remarked that the King was the typical verbally abusive spouse. I never thought that, but it got me wondering. I always saw Leontes, the King of Sicilia, as a tragic figure whose love for his wife betrayed him. The problem in this production though is Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a talented actor who can never quite find his footing in this difficult role as a generally benevolent King whose emotions lead him to destroy all that's important to him. In the opening scenes, he comes across as an irrational tyrant and never lets us see his humanity. His barking grows hollow, and sadly, his character ends up feeling insignificant, especially compared to his wife, Hermione (Linda Emond), who delivers a moving speech about her love for her husband while on trial for infidelity.
It's not until after intermission, though, that the play starts really working. This is due to Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who brings much needed comic relief as the Shepard's son. The ultimate idiot savant, he stumbles along through the complicated entanglements of the estranged King's daughter, her lover, and a conman, all while trying to herd the all-too-comical sheep courtesy of set designer Wendland. I've never seen a funnier production of The Winter's Tale, and for the park, that could be a perfect introduction to Shakespeare for many, but a lot of the mystical qualities of the play are lost due to broad performances by Santiago-Hudson and others. The ambitious musical score by Tom Kitt is also overkill. There are interesting melodic phrases here and there, but it never stops. Whole patches of dialogue are underscored with music (a la TV movie) that shifts suddenly in feeling from African to Orient. It's a confusing choice and makes me wonder if they were trying to make us feel like we were seeing a musical - those are the crowd-pleasers!
I finally saw Tom Kitt's Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal, also directed by Greif, and was blown away. This collaboration is much more successful and worthy of the hype it's been generating. It began as a short one-act about electroshock therapy and developed into a full two-act show about a manic-depressive housewife with schizophrenic delusions who struggles to hang on to her family and her sanity. It's a challenging work that refreshingly doesn't fit the mold of Broadway. There are no easy solutions for the characters, but book writer/lyricist Brian Yorkey crafts them in such a startlingly honest way that we can't help but be instantly engaged. Kitt's music plays a big part in this as well, and is more tied into the fabric of the characters than any musical I've seen recently. So much so that a few notes can feel like a well-constructed monologue. Greif is at the top of his game as well, drawing out flawless performances from Alice Ripley, Brian d'Arcy James and the rest of the cast. On the night I went, understudy MacKenzie Mauzy played the daughter, Natalie, and turned out to be one of the strongest performers in the show. It's easily one of the best shows on or off-Broadway at the moment.
Last week, I was also lucky enough to see the multi-talented and unclassifiable Reggie Watts play a sold-out show at Le Poisson Rouge. Equal parts musician, performance artist and raconteur, Watts is the rare kind of performer that leaves you with a wide grin on your face after seeing him. He mainly performed new material in a tight hour-long set that included a detailed story/song about taking mushrooms with a pretty hippy girl, a quirky love ballad that felt a bit like an old beat poem, and pithy commentary about his "sponsors" - a bottle of Poland Spring and Red Bull that he had lying next to his sampling processors. While he might not be ready for primetime, It's about time that HBO offered him a sitcom or at least a guest spot on the new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm.