THE BLOG
11/10/2016 01:01 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2017

On the Culture Front: Kings of War, Wilderness and more

Regina Spektor has a knack for turning simple chord progressions into ethereal expressions of joy, longing and sadness - sometimes all three in the same breadth. Her intonation alternates between whimsy and passion. This was all on display at her recent Town Hall show when she took the stage with a string quartet plus bass and drums. The instrumentation reveals her style of folk baroque. Sitting at the piano for nearly the entire 90-minute set, she was radiant yet shy. She was visibly nervous too. It was her first show in a few years, and she drank a lot of water between each song leaving space in the air for heckles. Most were kind words of support and the sole negative one drew a sharp backlash from adoring fans. That's the thing about her music: it invites you in so graciously and sincerely that it feels improper not to respond in kind.

Impropriety is the lifeblood of Nick Kroll and John Mulaney's "Oh, Hello," a savage sendup of growing old and out-of-touch but still persisting. The characters they've created, Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland respectively, live in a $75 a month rent controlled apartment on the Upper West Side and while away time in diners. You've probably seen these guys in their tattered blazers browsing used bookstores and other faded New York institutions. There's a darkness that courses through that keeps the jokes uneasy and adds complexity to this thoroughly enjoyable show.

Playwright Nathan Alan Davis vacillates between lyricism and minimalism in the piercing two-hander "Nat Turner in Jerusalem." Centered on the last moments in the title character's life after leading a slave rebellion, there are no easy answers here. The horrific nature of his acts and unwavering belief that he was told by God to do it, make Turner harder to empathize with than Solomon Northup, yet I couldn't felt feeling for him. Even the well-meaning white characters are brainwashed by racism, but still there are great moments that approach understanding and even kinship.

Isolation permeates the walls of a middle-aged woman's studio apartment in TR Warszawa's deeply disturbing "Request Concert." Staged in BAM's intimate Fishman Space by Yana Ross, this quietly heartbreaking work unfolds over seventy-five minutes in which not one word is spoken on stage. The ending is chilling but not shocking. It seems sudden and uncalled for in the moment and like a painful loss the thought that keeps cycling through is "what could have been done to avoid this?"

Ivo Van Hove's epic Shakespeare mashup "Kings of War" charts the arc from barbarism to peaceful society through the plays of "Henry V," "Henry VI" and "Richard III." The last is the most horrific with Richard committing grisly murders that embolden his psychotic narcissism and eventually launch England into what philosopher Thomas Hobbes called "a war of all against all." The biggest laugh of the afternoon came when Richard (Hans Kesting) called a foe "such a nasty woman." It doesn't seem funny now at all but the silver lining is that Richard III became England's last warring king.

Patton Oslwalt can find humor in the darkest situations and his set at the New York Comedy Festival last week is as fine a proof as any. His wife died earlier this year, a devastating loss that he addressed towards the beginning of the set while acknowledging that on stage is the only place he feels comfortable talking about it. The laughs he got were big and genuine, but the tears weren't far behind. The best bit of the night was a story about how hard he tried to keep his daughter distracted and in a loving environment the week leading up to Mother's Day and how one thoughtless yet well-meaning comment derailed that. He also addressed the absurd randomness that his wife is dead and he's still alive being that she solved cold-case murders and he tells "dick jokes." Oswalt may be underestimating his ability to create catharsis, but it's also part of the act.

Australian comedian Tim Minchin who's best known for the writing the musical "Matilda" warned that there weren't going to be too many jokes when he took the stage barefoot at the Beacon Theatre for a set following Oswalt's. That might be true in the most literal sense, but it was a gleeful night nonetheless with a set of songs his old fans will remember like my personal favorite Rock and Roll Nerd" along with a new song from "Groundhog Day," which was promising enough that I think he could be on the precipice of another Broadway hit.

Simon Stephens' "Heisenberg" which transferred from Manhattan Theatre Club's off-Broadway space is an intimate exploration of loneliness, desperation and the crazy things we do to have a little companionship. Georgie (Mary-Louise Parker) drives the action as an unhinged mom who craves far more than life has given her. She has no trouble finding words but they are rarely the right ones. Alex (Denis Arndt) is much more passive though that doesn't make his needs any less palpable. He's tried to live the unexamined life and it mostly works for him, yet there's something that draws him to Georgie despite (or maybe because of) the chaos she brings into his life.

The teenagers in "Wilderness" are lost, feeling untethered from the world and closer to an impending abyss than any rescue scenario they can dream up. Watching Seth Bockley and Anne Hamburger's beautifully drawn docu-play, we see things differently and want to find the words to tell them that this will all pass, and they will be okay. We can't though and neither can their parents who have sent them to a rehabilitation intervention camp called Wilderness. A number of the counselors have their own demons and know all too well of this abyss and use their familiarity with it to try to reach the kids. What could be maudlin and sentimental is anything but. In one of the most vivid moments a kid reveals that her mother tried to hang her when she was younger. A counselor burst out into tears (usually crying onstage is the sign of lazy writing) and when asked why says, "it just seems like someone should cry," in a plainspoken way that can only break your heart. One of the greatest strengths of "Wilderness" is that it feels too real to be a play.

There are few events I look forward to each year more than the Food Film Festival. Founded by George Motz with the ingenious idea that it would be pretty cool to be able to watch a short movie and then immediately eat what you saw on screen, a scratch and sniff for foodies if you will. My first instinct is to try to cram in as many of their events as possible, but the truth is that each of these is an epic marathon for your stomach. I chose to tackle The Taste of Louisiana, which included a primer on Creole cuisine along with delicacies like volcano bread from Iceland. Other highlights included a BBQ shrimp boule by chef Jude Tauzin, killer gumbo, and of course, biscuits.

As winter approaches, I like to have a bottle or two of bourbon on hand. Sometimes I can just nose a glass for an hour without even taking a sip but other times it's nice to have a cocktail. I sampled several concoctions made with Elijah Craig at The Bennett the other week. Highlights included a smooth tasting Grand Isle Old Fashioned made with maple syrup and bitters and a Haystack Toddy with pumpkin butter and Domaine de Canton ginger liquor.

Deals in the fine-dining world are often very relative and frankly not really a deal. Park Avenue Autumn seems to want to upend this with a $39 four-course dinner that they're calling a "dinner party." Designed for groups of 2-20, the experience begins with hors d'oeuvres in their warmly lit lounge. My favorite was the bites of mushroom strudel, but the mini latkes and corn dogs were also awesome. I don't usually like sparkling wine but the apple-tinged prosecco Mionetto NV they poured was excellent. Main dinning room highlights included a pumpkin ravioli appetizer and a dry-aged New York strip with horseradish bourguignon and an assortment of root vegetables. The "bases loaded chocolate bites" are a gourmet take on Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and a fine way to cap off the evening.